I first heard of ''the merkle'' in September of 1979. I had just moved into my house in Rappahannock County, Va., at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains and was having my telephone installed. In the midst of technical telephone talk, the telephone man suddenly interrupted the discussion to ask whether I knew about the ''merkles'' on the ridge behind my house.
There was a note of awe in his voice. I first thought of people - ''The Merkles.'' I said that I didn't know them or of them. He went on to say that they came out in early April, and went on to explain and describe the location, weather conditions, dates, and other facts bearing on the coming and the finding of the merkles. I concluded as his exposition went on, that he was speaking of some kind of mushroom. He asked me whether he could come back in April to hunt for merkles. I assured him that he could.
In the course of the fall and winter, I made discreet inquiries about merkles among my neighbors. I raised the topic in the country store and at social gatherings. Nearly everyone I addressed on the topic said that they knew about merkles. Some said that they had eaten merkles and found them good. A few admitted having collected them, but everyone seemed a little vague as to just when and where one might find merkles, or even, one merkle.
Distracted by the appearance of wood violets, bloodroot, May apples, and the buds on cherry trees - signs of spring I had known in Minnesota - I was not alert to the fact that the 1980 time of the merkle had come until one Sunday, in mid-April, I noted a few cars stopping in unusual places along Route 618, and persons, alone or in pairs, slipping out of the cars and then into the woods, some still dressed in their Sunday clothes, evidently just having come from church.
I concluded that the merkle waits for no man or woman, nor for a change of clothes, nor that it respected the Sabbath. I watched the wood's edge, to note, hours later, the same persons furtively coming out of the woods, clutching small brown bags, hurrying to their cars and disappearing down the road. I tried the woods on my own that first Sunday afternoon, and again the next morning, expecting to find merkles in great profusion, not unlike the manna of the desert. I found none. And gave up for the season.
1981 was a bad year for merkles in Rappahannock. Even experienced merkle hunters reported they had found none. The same was true of '82.
As April of 1983 approached, although I had doubts about the reliability of merkle hunters and their reports, I still had faith in the merkle. I was ready. I had gathered additional information about proper weather conditions for merkle growth. I had learned the relative advantages of seeking them under old apple trees, at the base of tulip poplars, adjacent to old hard pine stumps, and in some other less desirable locations. I had considered the relative advantage of the close-range, intensive search as against the cursive one; had considered the arguments made by some, reportedly successful, searchers of the east as against the west side of a ridge; and had even come to believe that possibly one should be dressed properly, a John Deere or an International Harvester cap, for example , and that, as some said, people with green or blue eyes were better able to see merkles in the debris of the woods than were those with brown eyes. My own bordered on brown.
I had no success in the 1983 season. But I was given a pint of merkles by one hunter as he crossed my yard after a successful hunt, and a promise that he would take me with him in the next season. The promise came from a resident of Culpeper County. He, in offering help to a resident of Rappahannock County, was a kind of latter-day good Samaritan, and consistent with that biblical character he had offered to come back to help.
As this year's merkle season progressed, I waited, with greater and greater anxiety, for his return. He never came.
I decided to make one try for merkles on my own. And on the Saturday before Easter invited my neighbor, Dennis Fairbrother, to come with me. Dennis has blue eyes. He brought his two-year-old daughter, who also has blue eyes. I welcomed her, believing that the presence of innocence might help in the search for merkles. It did not.
Dennis and I went to a mountaintop Easter sunrise service the next morning. The horizon was clear as the sun rose, although, before the last minister had finished his remarks, it had clouded over. Each of the three speakers made reference to the certainty of the sunrise, of the coming of spring, of the blossoming of the redbud and of the wild cherry trees. I waited for some reference to merkles. There was none.
Back in my house after the service, I was resigned to accepting that another merkle season had come and gone. That I had failed again. Then my telephone rang. I thought for a moment that it might be the Culpeper County Samaritan. It was not. But the wife of another neighbor, who together with her husband had been unsuccessful merkle hunters through many seasons.
''We've done it,'' she exulted over the phone. ''Found merkles in our old orchard.'' Had they left any?
''No,'' she replied, but I could come and look if I wished. I hurried over, and there in the orchard, I found one merkle, which either they missed or which had sprung up after their passing. I picked it. My faith was saved. I will be ready for next year's season.