It's been a long time! I was glad to receive your letter. Mail doesn't often come up here in the mountains, and it leaves even less often! So this will reach you some time after your generous message. Sorry about that.
Yeah, I moved up here to become a mushroom hunter a few years ago. You shouldn't be so surprised! You know I've always searched for the things even when I didn't want to, and none were to be found anyway. They call to me, across the dark miles between us, until I am kept awake at night. I don't always know where to find them, but they call to me still, and I have to look for them.
No, it's not a brisk trade in mushrooms, you're right! There are eccentric chefs who come to me for my eccentric selection, but they are rare and don't always give much. I have a peppery variety that they all seek: I won't tell you my secret for finding them, but I have to hang off of steep cliffs and search for dark holes under the shadows of knotted pines. It's treacherous, but it has become indispensable to the local cuisine most recently; and it adds color, a deep blue with reddish orange. I found another variety only once, but its price was enough to keep me fed for a year. Yellow and curled, it looks much like a banana slug but its flavor and texture are distinctly... well, it reminds one of a woman I am told.
Most of my business is with the local folks, who are really just looking for some sort of fodder for their animals. Nothing grows well here, nothing but the mushrooms, and so I do well in volume: the big, white and beefy varieties get me enough to live on in trade, and the gratitude and trust of the herdsmen surpasses the rewards given by the rich chefs many times over.
Yes, it's a pretty solitary life, but I don't feel lonely except at times. At the peak there's a ring of white stones, oblong things tapering off at the top and carved hundreds, thousands of years ago, and they pose as if rising up to guard the sky. I talk to them, there on the peak, and though they do not answer I know they understand. They gather around, and I tell them all I have to say, and then I go away.
At the full moon I meet the tattooed woman. We meet there, among the stones, and then we pass the night in a mountain hut and I follow with my finger the many-colored whorls that cover her back, her stomach, her breasts and legs: the traces of men she has known before me. The most recent stands out red and inflamed. But I cannot rest when I am beside her, so I watch her sleep. And when her breathing slows and softens, the tattoos fade and disappear until she is bone white beneath the moon. And when she slowly wakens, they appear again, each in their place; and she is beautiful white, and she is beautiful colored with tattoos.
I don't know her age, but she remembers a time when there were oceans of ice. She will eat any mushrooms I give her, but does not seem to need them; I too eat sparingly. I have lost weight since I came here; the skin on my face sags a bit now. The way to the peak leads through a nest of spider ants. They are small, but the many tiny fangs, hundreds, thousands at a time, add to a terrible poison and I vomit and find it hard to keep down food for some time after. I tried after many of these attacks to find another way, but this path is so much faster, and I always seem to get lost among the trees when I go any other way. Besides, I don't really believe there is a path that doesn't lead through the spider ants. I can't imagine how their bites satisfy them, because the small amount of blood is nothing even compared to their tiny bodies. But I guess they need to feed themselves, and each other, somehow.
The tattooed woman has begun to write in my flesh now, and I'm afraid it is indelible. Fresh, it stands out on my skin. But the tattoo is magnificent, black and shades of green in a tight spiral near my navel, and by it I remember her. Once she felt all my body without preference, but now she begins there each time, touching the tattoo like a groove worn from marble.
As I watch her at night I listen to the mountains: their solidity is so heavy on the heart that it makes me gasp; and yet I keep listening, I want to hear. They are protecting me, all of us, from some terrible fate. The world might fly apart or something, without them. So I listen and I feel better, safer, for it.
I hope you and your family are well.