Painting of a woman's head emerging from a bath of dark blue water that sparkles with glowing mushroom caps
Oil painting by Ashley Williams

My mother loved baths. She loved them so much that, one day, she used a portion of her severance pay to buy a clawfoot bathtub online. The delivery men placed the bathtub in the middle of our yard, right where my mother asked them to leave it. It was early in the morning. My mother had recently lost her job, and over the last couple of weeks she’d spent a great deal of time watching the yard’s growth because, she said, she could not bear staring at a glowing screen for another minute. She promised me we’d be okay. My father was living in another town with another mother.

When the clawfoot bathtub arrived, my mother said, “Go play!” Then she filled the tub halfway up with soil from the bed of our failed vegetable garden. Sweat beaded the small fine hairs on the back of my mother’s neck. She took a breath. Then she took off her clothes and stood naked in the yard. I could see the scars on her belly from her caesarian, where doctors had opened her up to dig me out of her. She climbed into the tub of soil. She closed her eyes. She let out a long sigh.

Before this, my mother told me dirt was bad. We must wash the dirt out of our fingernails; we must avoid tracking dirt into our house; we must pull up the strange mushrooms that popped up in our yard. She said the mushrooms might be poisonous to me, or if not poisonous then at least ugly, or if not ugly, at least too phallic for my innocent girl-eyes to gaze upon for extended periods of time.

But now, here was my mother covering herself in the same dirt that held the potential for phallic mushrooms.

The other children of the neighborhood went up to my mother and so did a few mothers, though of course they kept the appropriate distance. The mothers of the neighborhood, their children trailing close behind, asked my mother what she was doing. My mother said she had listened to a podcast that suggested, when you sense an anxiety spiral, you should pause and breathe. She said the night before she had seen new mushrooms pop up in the yard and instead of falling into a spiral of anxiety and removing them and then worrying about how she and I might fall through the cracks of this country and wind up dead in a ditch, she had paused. And breathed! She had listened. Then she had researched. She read online that the appearance of the mushrooms meant the soil was healthy and fine. In fact, a dense network of mycelium, basically fungal threads, were always pulsing beneath our feet. “There is a mile of mycelium in a square foot of healthy soil!” my mother said. “It’s not a safety net exactly, but it is a kind of net.”

“Hm,” said the other mothers. They looked tired. It was still (somehow) morning, and the other mothers needed a cup of coffee. The dirt around my mother looked a little bit like coffee grounds.

My mother went on: She had wasted so much energy misunderstanding fungi, trying to keep our yard presentable – not in a keeping-up-with-the-Joneses sort of way, but in a keep-the-Joneses-from-pitying-you kind of way. Mushrooms were the fruit of a dense hidden world of hyphae, tendriling out and talking to trees and to tree roots and to women, too, if the women dared to listen. If you listened right, my mother said, your thoughts moved from the “I” to the “we.”

When the other mothers told my mother that she was being unnerving and asked if she was talking about mushrooms like this because she was on mushrooms, my mother paused.

She said, “How about this? I’m working on replenishing my microbiome. Because of all the hand sanitizer?”

At this everyone nodded with relief, like it made sense now, like “working on my microbiome” was a code for “sanity.” The mothers began to drift away. But they looked back at my mother in her tub and I could see something flash in their eyes. Another person’s desire is intoxicating, but another person’s contentment can be a provocation.

The fathers of the neighborhood, when they found out about my naked mother in the tub, thought perhaps my mother was sick. Physically she seemed fine, but there might be some kind of a tapeworm in her brain. If so, the tapeworm was spreading rapidly and mysteriously to the minds of other mothers. Later that day, more mothers dragged tubs out into their yard. They filled these tubs with dirt and climbed inside.

If you walked down a street in our neighborhood that day, each yard contained a naked mother half-buried in a tub of dirt. The mothers’ faces began to resemble fleshy fungi, and their hair was like some beautiful inky mushroom cap deliquescing. They looked very, very relaxed.

As far as we children of the neighborhood, we were in a state of shock. We had never before thought of mothers as organic matter. As the sun set, the mothers seemed to be humming together, though sometimes they shouted instructions to the children from the yards. Here is how you boil water for tea; here is how you open a can of soup. We went to our kitchen drawers and found the can openers ourselves for the first time. They looked like instruments of torture, not like anything that could bring us closer to sustenance. Our hearts pounded with our own solitary ineptitude. We bashed the can openers against the soup can. Nothing happened. “Squeeze the arms together!” the mothers chorused. “Keep it perpendicular to the lid. You’ll feel a puncture!” They themselves did not want food or water or to get up to use the bathroom. They said they just needed a moment.

Most of us figured out the can opener thing eventually.

Most of the fathers stayed elsewhere.

The mothers stayed in their tubs of dirt overnight. They watched the stars come out, and then the fireflies come out, and then there was heat lightning and they watched that too, laughing together from their separate tubs. In our lit bedrooms, we children watched the mothers watch these layers of flickering luminescence. The mothers’ laughter seemed sporic, traveling strangely on the wind.

I must have fallen asleep at my window because suddenly it was bright everywhere, the sun was up, and my mother was back inside, wrapped in a towel. Her knees were loamy, her eyes were darker, but she seemed, otherwise, much the same. The other mothers went back inside too. The tubs were returned. All the mothers showered. My childhood went on, and so did the other children’s, though our dreams seemed newly cavernous.

It was our backyards that changed the most, at least outwardly. Around the places where the tubs had been, where the mothers had bathed in dirt, new fungi sprouted up in spirals, circles, constellations. We children ran outside when we saw; we ran our fingers along the fungi’s gills, but when we asked if we might pick the fungi, the mothers said no, leave them alone. The mothers sat in front of the mycelium’s fruit and sketched them on the back of bank statements, using very soft pencils, and when we asked the mothers what they were doing, they said self-portraits. They said sometimes instead of watching children, mothers needed to watch themselves. They told us that one day we ourselves would be old enough to accurately draw a picture of our mothers drawing themselves, and that rendering this moment as adults would be wonderful. It would bring us a new, deep, earthy joy, they said, remembering our mothers like this. It would be better than childhood. They promised.

Lee Conell

Lee Conell is the author of a novel, The Party Upstairs, which received the Wallant Award, and a story collection, Subcortical, which received the Story Prize's spotlight award. She is the recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, Millay Arts, the U.S.-Japan Creative Artist Program, and the Tennessee Arts Commission. Her stories and essays have appeared in ZYZZYVA, Kenyon Review, Oxford American, Alaska Quarterly Review, and Paris Review Daily.