I’d long known that the amanita family of mushrooms were to be handled with care, and could be very poisonous, but this short story by Susan Cartwright-Smith gives us a more supernatural reason for wanting to avoid them, and is a very personal and sad tale of the associations they have for her and her family.
Redcap by Susan Cartwright-Smith
The boys ran on ahead, shouting with delight at finding a carpet of fly agaric toadstools.
They were still young enough to believe that they were magical – pixie houses.
I had always found them slightly malevolent, after my dad told me about the murderous goblins called Redcaps.
Their caps, not unlike the domes of the fly agaric, would be dipped in the blood of their victims, and glisten. Their hats were their life. They needed them bloodied, or they would die.
“The most notorious Redcap,” my father had said, “was a familiar of a Laird who conspired against Robert the Bruce. He was dragged into the centre of a stone circle and boiled to death. Redcaps live along the Border. You often get demons along borders – it’s all about edges, uncertainties, things going one way or another. That’s where all the legends about full moons and new moons come from. Balance. You know?”
I had nodded, absorbing the information but not really engaging. My father told me stories all the time, and sometimes my attention was caught by them. I tried, unsuccessfully, to put the Redcap out of my mind, as, like the Doff-Off Goblin, it sounded like a creature that would haunt my nightmares if I let it.
“The Redcaps,” he went on, “would track a traveller. You would hear the heavy tread of their iron boots, but when you turned around, they would be concealed, hidden. On you would go, the fear and uncertainty building in you. You would hear their sharp talons scratching along the stone wall, and you would stop, spin round to catch a glimpse of who was following you, but again… nothing. Imagine,” he said, “imagine your terror. Imagine this invisible assailant; you know it is there, you know it means you harm, you know it is going to end in your demise, but it is keeping you waiting, waiting, until your blood is rushing with fear, your heart is pounding, your breath is catching…and then, slash!”
“Slash! Stab! The Redcap’s talons slice you open! The blood is pouring out. The Redcap waits until you sink to the ground, lost and alone along the border, and he kneels on your chest, drinks deep from the wound he has caused, and dips his cap in your blood. The last your dying eyes see is his red cap contrasting with the green grass. Like those fly agarics.” He pointed, and I followed the gesture. The group of fungi looked like a gang of ghastly gnomes, bowed over, plotting together, watching… I shuddered, and scowled at Dad, who was grinning at my discomfort.
We had continued our walk through the forest, but my imagination was supplying the rhythmic thud of iron boots, and evil, tracking goblins. Each toadstool became more malevolent than just a toxic fungus, and I was glad to break out into the clearing. Of course my nightmares were riddled with long fingers, with talons reaching out from the darkness, and blood dripping from sharp-toothed maws. But the true nightmare was still to come.
Years later, when our walks had started to become slower, but still taking in forests and stories, I noticed a clump of fly agarics and pointed them out. Dad nodded, then was overtaken by another coughing fit, which were becoming more frequent. He looked distressed, and spat his phlegm out on the ground. A gobbet of blood-tainted froth stood proud against the deep green of the grass, sitting beside the hoods of agarics. I looked in horror, and asked the wordless question with my tear-brimming eyes. Dad took his handkerchief out, wiped his mouth, and answered my question, without words.
The goblin stalked him relentlessly for a few years. In and out of hospitals. In and out of our hopes, and our fears. And although it caught up with him, my dad never had to travel alone in his last days, never had to be afraid. When he crossed the border, the demons did not claim their victim.
“Don’t touch those toadstools!” I yelled at the boys.
“It’s alright, Mummy,” said the eldest one. “We won’t knock his hat off.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“The goblin. We won’t knock his hat off. He needs it or he won’t live.”
The boys looked slightly past me, with that unnerving way that children have, of something or someone being just behind you. I refused to look round, but uncharacteristically kicked the tops off the toadstools, then took the boys quickly away.