The Ashes of His Youth

The Mushroom Gatherers, Jane Sutherland, Date: c.1895

In the 1950’s I saw a movie titled The Mole People, a science fiction film about the descendants of an ancient Sumerian civilization living beneath the Earth in modern times. The original population had moved to subterranean caves after a catastrophic flood in Mesopotamia. The people have lived underground so long that they’ve become albinos.

Over time, mutants developed, the mole people. They are slaves; their primary job is to harvest mushrooms – the ruling people’s primary food source. The story revolves around a group of modern archaeologists discovering this long-lost civilization because of an earthquake near their archeological digging site.

I had never intentionally eaten a mushroom when I saw the movie, so I had no ideas concerning mushroom texture or taste. Nowadays, I enjoy mushrooms frequently, had some with my breakfast today even. A few years ago, my wife and I took a walk in the woods in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont. The ground was rich with mushrooms. Having learned the difference between edible and dangerous mushrooms from her mother, my wife picked several of those around us. When we got back to the place where we were staying, she fried them in butter. I passed on her generous offer and watched her nervously for some time after she finished her meal, thinking she might take ill any moment. She didn’t. Her mother taught her well.

In addition to their diet, another one of the peculiarities of these underground dwellers that fascinated me as a child was that light, like kryptonite did to Superman, weakened them. Something else: Whenever their population grew too large, the powers that be sacrificed young women to their god. And they did this by exposing them to a light source, a secret opening to the outside world through which the sun shone. The chosen sacrifices go out young, fresh, and beautiful and are brought back in, burnt to a crisp!

To give you some idea of what I’m talking about, here is the film’s official 1956 trailer:

Not the sort of special effects we’re used to now, but in the 1950s, this was a pretty scary movie to a kid. For weeks after seeing the movie, I tried to stay in the shade, imagining what it would be like to be one of these underground people and also, of course, not wanting to become a piece of toast. From the movie, the latter idea seemed a distinct possibility; my family was living in Alabama at the time. That state is radiant with sunshine. So it was necessary whenever I would walk down the street to make dashes from the shade of one tree to that of another. At this time, I became intrigued by darkness, by night, by the shadows cast by trees in daylight.

Now, these many years later, I live on the edge of a desert, with tons of sunlight. I used to walk our dog here at 3 p.m. and will do it again in the not too distant future. But I recently read that, especially for people like me with pale, sensitive skin, it is best to go outdoors, when required, either before 10 a.m. or after 4 p.m., swathed in sunblock and wearing a big hat. As a result, Kulfi and I now enjoy a somewhat shortened afternoon walk after four. But we’ve added time to our night walk. And that’s beautiful compensation.

Today is the first day of autumn in the Northern Hemisphere. Today’s high here in Be’er Sheva was 90, but cooler days are coming. Wonder-dog and I are ready to enjoy them. One of Shakespeare’s sonnets, No. 73, read here by the English actor Sir Patrick Steward, is appropriate to the autumn season and, in addition, carries an abundance of meaning apart from its seasonal relevance.

That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou see’st the twilight of such day
As after sunset fadeth in the west,
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest.
In me thou see’st the glowing of such fire
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the death-bed whereon it must expire,
Consum’d with that which it was nourish’d by.
This thou perceiv’st, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.

william Shakespeare, Sonnet 73

“Love that well which thou must leave ere long.” Wise words.

All the best,
Gershon

Author: Gershon Ben-Avraham

Gershon Ben-Avraham is an American-Israeli writer. He lives in Beersheba, Israel, on the edge of the Negev Desert. He and his wife share their lives with a gentle blue-merle long-haired collie. Ben-Avraham earned an MA in Philosophy (Aesthetics) from Temple University. His short story, “Yoineh Bodek,” (Image) received “Special Mention” in the Pushcart Prize XLlV: Best of the Small Presses 2020 Edition. Kelsay Books published his chapbook “God’s Memory” in 2021. חב"ד‎

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