Some folks like to warn that money can’t buy happiness, but I figure it’s hope that holds real worth. Twelve days before emigrating from Będzin, Poland, to the hilled landscape of Oregon in 1943, my great-grandpa Alistair made a single, significant purchase. With the last of his savings he bought a ring for his wife, Kazia. It was forged by a goldsmith who claimed he could weave the couple’s aspirations right into the metal, preserving their visions for the future as neatly as life sealed in amber. Sometimes, that’s all you can do with misery such as theirs – manipulate it, melt it down. Then alchemize it into its opposite: a small gilded band with a clear stone stuck on top, gleaming like a rock-hard promise the dissatisfied times will always keep to the past. I never knew my great-grandparents, but I do know this: When that ring entered their lives, it set into motion the story of my own.
By now, the old ring has travelled across three generations. It has passed through penny arcades and dance classes, drowned in home-brewed whiskey and spent the night in an abandoned freight train twelve cars long. It has witnessed death and birth and snuggled deeper into the soft grooves of old hands until eventually it outlived its owners. They passed on, but through the ring their stories still turn in revolutions, moving in loops same as the twine my mother now uses to bale straw tight as a barrel-chested hug.
Here, on this side of the Atlantic, my family traded sheep farming for fungus, mushrooms of all shape and variety. My mother uses the straw for making compost, a hotbed of essential nutrients from which the spores grow best. I’m always impressed by the way small caps of life can spring from the stuff of death, bone-white Shiitake rising from a mix of horse dung, rotting fruit peels, and husked shells that gleam like the ring now riding on mother’s finger.
Once I found her standing near the blue compost bin in the backyard, twisting the ring past her swollen knuckle. Thunderheads were gathering above the surrounding hills, cresting like waves in the ocean. I put my arm under hers, and she turned so that the wind caught her thinning brown hair, blowing it toward me. She told me she’d woken that morning thinking of Poland, a yearning in her blood, reminding her of how she’d always hoped to see the country. She said it was her duty to return, that all life is meant to be circular, in the end. To which I’d reasoned, What end?
Her answering laughter was as tight as the swollen clouds, her lavender eyes suddenly dim. I felt bad when I saw in her face I’d made her think of my father.
Most mornings find my mother in mud-caked gum boots and patched jeans, humming old folk ballads, hard at work in our growing shed – a wooden barn with low ceilings, metal roof, and plywood boards tacked over its grimy windows. The mushrooms require a damp, gloomy atmosphere in order to flourish. Mother claims not to be bothered by the dark, but I find it oppressive.
To me, it feels like hiding, trapped in obscurity while something more unknowable rushes toward us. It makes me feel enclosed, and afraid.
I’m eighteen now, old enough to know better. But not long ago, I used to make the mistake of imagining that whenever I stepped inside the wooden shed the whole surface of the world was above me. I felt as though I, too, was buried in the meal-wormed earth just like the mushrooms, putrid soil crumbling into my mouth. Inevitably, my anxiety would rise, spiraling upward until it encircled my neck like a chain pulled tight, leaving me gasping for air. I would imagine scratching at the rotten muck all around me, swallowing and gagging, a thick skein of heavy earth bearing down on my caved-in chest. In those terrified moments I stumbled toward the heavy door of the growing shed and leaned against its weight, throat shrunken and heart pounding fast. I would lean hard until I broke through and sunlight walloped the world back into focus.
During one such panic attack, before I could reach the door, mother suddenly peeled off from the shadows and gripped my shoulders, shaking me so hard my head snapped back. The whites of her eyes glowed in the dark. Get ahold of yourself, she’d said, fingers digging into the rim of my collar bone. I curled my hands into fists and nodded, lungs shuddering, unable to speak. I don’t know if it was her intention, but her anger gave me courage.
In time, I got better at reasoning through fear. I learned how to balance my body by directing my own mind. Mother noticed. One day, I heard her use a funny word to describe me to our neighbor, Mr. Lambert, who came to help chop firewood from a fallen tree after mother was told to rest by the doctor. Grounded, is how she described me. She’s a steady one, feet planted on solid ground. I can still hear the pride in her voice.
Of course, I never told her of the specific visions that caused my claustrophobia, images of the earth closing up around me, twisting my features in the dark. Whenever I’m helping mother mix a batch of mycelium spores, or moving down the shelves of black plastic growing trays with a bag of fertilizer, I stay calm by focusing on mother’s fingers. The ring is a landmark, offering assurance among the murky shadows. Its metallic gleam distracts my thoughts, flashing bright enough to make me wonder how such material could ever originate underground.
Just the other day mother was going on about how everything in the growing shed is elemental: the band on her finger, the feathered Maitake mushrooms sprouting from spongy moss, the wooden door that seals with an iron latch. Same as my father’s cotton work shirts, now acquired as my own. Even my pupils, reduced to a pinpoint in the dim light. Everything is made of just a few compounds, she said, arranged into different patterns: carbon, oxygen, hydrogen, nitrogen, recycling from one form into the next. She said this slowly, pensively. Almost devoutly. I could tell she was trying to be positive, trying to find a different way of looking at what lay ahead.
Mother still wears the ring with pride if not purpose, even though we both know it’s not really hers, just an emblem she’s agreed to carry for as long as she can. There’s an underlying assumption that when she’s gone, I’ll take over, but I’m not sure I could ever stand to see her hand bare, only memories resting in the empty furrow of her skin. Perhaps when the time comes, I’ll simply revert to traditions more ancient, sending her off like an empress with jewels, wishing her well on a journey to the next world.
But I prefer not to think like this. Lately, whenever mother digs into the earth around the thinly fleshed mushrooms, I find I have to look away.
It’s impossible to ignore how much she is changing. Mother still stomps around the farm and makes up her own rules, face as hard as flint; yet something unstoppable is rising within her, a gentleness I refuse to label as illness. Violet spots bloom along her hands like a fungus gone virulent. Her eyes are rimmed with shadows like those that seep across the floor of the growing shed. Her body is breaking down, but the ring will have none of it, staying solid and, impossibly, the same.
I’ve been meaning to ask mother if this is why we find certain stones and metals so valuable. If it’s because they outlive us, retaining a shining vigor that makes them appear almost edible: an endlessness all too easy to crave.
Life, of course, is different, a flash that quickly burns into oblivion, then turns, spiraling like the lineage that links me to my ancestors. I’ve learned that life depends on movement, on the magic in decay. Lips tremble, eyes water, blood flows. Expectations shift and collapse, while the earth rearranges in cycles. Still, there is comfort in knowing that the ring will shine on – touched and tarnished by time, yet never turning back into the ground from which it sprung.
LARA PALMQVIST received her B.A. from St. Olaf College and M.Th. in religion in peace and conflict from Uppsala University. Her work has been honored with grants and awards from the Jerome Foundation, National Science Foundation, Sozopol Fiction Seminars, Rotary International, and the U.S. Fulbright Commission, through which she taught creative writing at the Ivan Franko National University in Ukraine. A native of New Mexico, she currently lives and writes in Northfield, Minnesota.
THE ELIZABETH KOSTOVA FOUNDATION and VAGABOND, Bulgaria's English Monthly, cooperate in order to enrich the English language with translations of contemporary Bulgarian writers. Every year we give you the chance to read the work of a dozen young and sometimes not-so-young Bulgarian writers that the EKF considers original, refreshing and valuable. Some of them have been translated in English for the first time. The EKF has decided to make the selection of authors' work and to ensure they get first-class English translation, and we at VAGABOND are only too happy to get them published in a quality magazine. Enjoy our fiction pages.