The Forest Calls, Part 1: The Ancient Stump

fall tree colors in maine

Note to the reader: At the end, you will be presented with choices that will change the outcome of this story and a place to enter your email to get the next edition. Each week, I will add alternatives, unforeseen twists, thrills and maybe even a little romance. I hope you enjoy this choose your own adventure interactive storytelling concept and please feel free to leave a comment below. -Mandy Wheaton 3/28/2022

The air was cool. It was fall in northern Maine.

I had been on a hunting trip all week. Every day we had passed an area of forest left untouched by the paper companies who owned most of the land in that densely forested area of the state. Outcrops with long jagged ledges jutted up from below. Scattered drop-stone boulders, and steep mountainsides, made it difficult and costly to mechanically harvest from the narrow, dirt logging roads. We had parked the camper nearby—but hunting was serious business. So, I waited until Sunday when hunting was closed.

A boulder the size of a car looked as if it were set there by giants, then forgotten, eons ago. I walked toward it. As I approached the stone the trees beyond it looked even taller. The stone was thickly hedged on either side with alder bushes, growing in a ditch. After pushing through the brush along the roadside, and scrambling up the other side of the ditch, I could see a completely different world. The forest floor was open, dark, steeply sloped, and free from branches. A lush green carpet of moss blanketed the landscape. I removed my boots and socks, and left them at the forests’ edge.

The moss was thick, soft, and cool. It felt good on my bare feet. Each step was silent and deeply sunken as I walked down the slope. A few steps farther in, I dropped my coat. I needed to feel the thick air on my skin.

Slowly, I left the brilliant sunny morning behind and immersed myself in the dim light. I looked back, a little leery of becoming lost, swallowed up by the forest—but it called me farther in.

The damp, earthy smell was so real, so true. Farther still, I wandered. A fog, nearly a mist, had laid heavily across the rugged landscape on our way back to the camper the night before. Now, in the still air of the forest little wisps and pools of dense fog hovered in place just above the ground.

spruce bud tips in northern maine woods

Time passed differently under the lush canopy. Without a view of the sun or perception of daylight, it simply didn’t exist. Distance was somehow warped. I felt like I was walking slowly, yet when I looked back, I was much farther in than I’d expected. Maybe it was because my footfalls were kept secret by the soft forest floor. As I passed a wide tree trunk, several brilliant yellow mushrooms caught my eye. I began to feel weightless as I passed through the towering trees. Before I knew it, only the very souls of my feet brushed the moss with each silent step. I walked toward them in elegantly long, slow strides to investigate, hoping they were Chanterelles to fry with the partridge I’d bagged at dusk the evening before.

Large, meaty Chanterelles were scattered amongst mush smaller ones, which I left to grow. I unbuttoned the top three buttons on my flannel and dropped the mushrooms between it and my undershirt. As I dropped in the last one, a sting of fear disturbed my journey. How far had I wandered into the forest? I quickly turned, and saw the sunny strip was smaller, but still there. Still obvious. My boots were there, waiting. The Forest called.

Viscid violet cort edible mushrooms in maine purple featured in choose your own adventure interactive storytelling

In the distance, a large lump lay on the forest floor—which was otherwise a uniform low mat of mosses. One more glance at the light behind me, then I turned toward the smooth, gradual rise. It couldn’t be the ridges of ledge; it was too uniform. I wandered farther in, the lichen grew on the wide trunks in patches of large green scales, that looked like a cross between seaweed and snakeskin. The bark that was still visible was deeply grooved.

Making my way to the mysterious rise ahead, several purple mushrooms drew my attention; Viscid Violet Corts, with their little tan speckles and glossy purple caps. I knelt, sinking and good foot into the lush moss, and tucked them into my flannel, with the others. I slowly stood, looked at the lump on the forest floor—then at the strip of light behind me. The Forest called.

Another few hundred feet in, and the lump revealed itself as an ancient stump, larger than any I had ever seen. It must have been eight feet wide and as tall as I was. Trees don’t grow that big here. As I approached, I lightly laid my hand upon it. It was so soft, even the lightest touch left an impression. How long had it sat there? Another sting, a reminder of my boots. The sun. Reality. Responsibilities. Bills. Politics. The strip of light to lead me back was hidden behind so many trees, that it was barely distinguishable now from the forest. I looked back at the massive, supple stump before me.

The forest seemed darker and filled with a silence like I’d never experienced. The trees seemed larger, the canopy thicker. I pushed my hand into the stump. How far in would it go? I wasn’t sure why I would do that, but I could not stop myself. The soft remnants of wood parted for my hand as I reached in. Soon I was up to my elbow. It happened so excruciatingly slow. At some point, I was no longer reaching in. The stump drew me in. I thought about pulling back, but there was no use. The moment the thought to resist crossed my mind, it was quashed by forces beyond my understanding. I wasn’t allowed to think it.

maine forest artistry moss in the sun

Pressing my arm ever deeper into the ancient stump, I touched something hard with my fingertips. It was smooth, and slender, with something on the end. I grasped it and pulled. Decades of tiny roots and intricately woven mycelium clung to the mysterious object inside the stump, making it difficult to remove.

My arm was inside the soft stump clear to my shoulder. I pressed my side against the stump to hook my fingers around the tiny ropes holding it tightly in place.  Had to press my face against the moist, earthy stump to reach far enough to break them away. Several minutes, maybe more, passed as I untangled the object inside the cool, damp stump.

I ran my fingertips along the smooth shaft and felt no more roots. I braced my feet against the base of the stump. With a strong tug it finally broke free and sent me sprawling backward. I soundlessly landed on my back on the forest floor. I sat up and stared in astonishment at what I’d pulled from the ancient tree.

Brushing off the soft bits of wood from the strange artifact, an unnatural shape revealed itself. It was a long, slender skeleton key. On the end, was an intricate pattern that was still tangled with tiny roots and bits of the stump. It was hard to make out in the dim light. The jagged key pattern on the other end was elaborate and unlike any key I’d seen before.

the ancient stump in northern maine choose your adventure interactive storytelling

My throat felt tight. The dense air clung to my face in the stillness of the forest and dampened my clothes. Long wisps of fog slipped between trees like ghostly snakes, in my direction. My heart suddenly beat wildly. Is this a heart attack? Without wanting to, I gently laid back on the thick forest floor. Why did I do that? The trees there had the lichen scales covering their trunks as far as I could see up them. They were wider and a deep dark green color, that was nearly black. There was no wind in the forest, yet they seemed to creep in lazy, gradual movements.  Everything is different here.

From behind it, a dense patch of fog slowly began to pour over the top the stump. Somehow, my heart began to beat even faster. The fog spilled over my naked feet, still in the mossy impressions from being braced against the base of the stump. As the mist crept over the stump and up my legs, fat droplets formed on my green woolen pants. The peculiar fog spread flat and wide, covering my whole body.

After what felt like an eternity floating in a pale gray cloud, I was staring straight up into the canopy again, at filtered light in shades of green. I moved only my eyes at first, and cautiously looked around. I sat up, and spun around, with my back resting against the ancient stump of the long-forgotten tree. The light is barely there; I must turn back.

What will happen next?

A. She rushes back to the camper in terror, falls onto a sharp rock and must wait for help.

B. She calmly walks back toward the camper in a trance-like state and encounters a strange red fox.

C. She wakes up in the truck on the way home and thinks the whole thing was a dream.

(A, B and C will be clickable hyperlinks once they have been written.)

I hope you enjoyed this first installment of this choose your own adventure interactive storytelling collection.

a line of spruce on a bog in northern maine at sunset
Spruce and pine line the edge of a sphagnum bog in far north-western Maine in of fall 2021.

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