Antosia doesn’t like photos. Doesn’t like being flattered. ‘Save it for the funeral,’ she says. She likes it when you tease her, tell her the truth and when you keep silent.
‘I’m going to look for mushrooms,’ she said on her way out the door.
I slipped my shoes on. ‘I’m coming too.’
‘Wait for me,’ my mum said. She went upstairs and starting sorting out the washing.
Antosia looked out the window. ‘It might rain.’
‘Let’s go,’ I said.
We passed her father’s family farmhouse. Half-a-dozen chickens ran past. We turned into the forest. Antosia immediately left the path. Crunching on sticks, undergrowth, not bothered by foliage. No careful stepping for her. I followed quickly and adopted her method. She stopped and pointed down at a cluster of small yellow mushrooms. ‘Kurki. Chicks.’ She carefully opened a cloth bag. Popped the mushrooms inside. She looked at me. ‘There’s one close. You find it.’ I stood like a blind man at a bus stop. ‘Closer to your feet,’ she said.
I scanned the ground nervously. Tiny mushroom blooms. ‘That small?’
‘Don’t turn down any gifts.’ She was already looking for another type of mushroom. She overturned a few stalks with her feet. ‘Someone’s been here before us. No brown crowns.’
We walked down the steep forest bank and crossed a mountain stream. She went first. I watched closely and jumped on the same stones. How old is she? Seventy-two. We began walking through low-lying green bushes. Hanging from each bush was a swathe of wild blueberries. Antosia passed me a large empty yoghurt pot. ‘Put the pot underneath and shake.’
We shook for some time. A quarter of the pot filled. Then half. My foraging instincts got the better of me. I could have kept on going. A group of people went past. Without saying anything, Antosia hunched into the blueberry bushes. I followed her lead. Eventually she stood. We were leaving. I had no choice to follow her expert, clopping method out of the undergrowth.
‘Any snakes?’ my mum asked me when we got home. ‘There are adders in mountain forests.’
I felt my skin shiver. I’d put my hand blindly into plenty of bushes. ‘No snakes.’ I couldn’t imagine Antosia having a problem with any creature. ‘I like sitting in the forest,’ she’d said to me earlier. ‘Just going to one spot to another. Somedays I find myself doing it all day.’ We were passing a forest compound. A few log houses stood close together with a large log fence.
‘What’s this place?’ I asked in a hushed voice.
‘It’s a fish farm,’ Antosia said. ‘Built a few years ago.’ I could see a few men digging a ditch. Their voices rang out like the sound of rubbing gravel. ‘Ukrainians.’
‘Do you eat fish?’
She shook her head vigourously. Then she shrugged as if checking herself. ‘I’m not learned enough to talk about it.’ I’d discovered this was one of her most common phrases. When we’d arrived in her house, the new Pope’s picture hung by the stairs. I’d asked her what she thought. Tough act to follow after John Paul 11.
‘I would hope to never criticise the Pope,’ Antonia said carefully, pouring black tea, ‘but I’m not learned enough to talk about it.’
Sunday came. Antosia made us all Sunday lunch in the garden. Under the huge conifer trees. She used our spoils: wild mushroom soup and mountain blueberry pierogi. At the end of lunch, she cut a red rose her rose bush. She placed it in front of me on the table and a small bar of dark chocolate. ‘Your names’ day,’ she said.
I looked up. Poland is famous for names’ days, celebrated in eschew of even birthdays. Despite being half-Polish, I’d never had one before. ‘My names’ day? When is it?’
She smiled with her owl eyes. ‘The 26th of July.’
I stared out. I know the people of this house. The ones who aren’t here anymore. You can pass pass their garden to the mountains and hike straight up through the fields up to the valley. You can smell the pine trees swaying their scent like dark secrets. My parents walked these trails. My grandparents. I felt the breeze calling me from my seat. Place can have such a strong effect.