The air is cool. The wind still. It’s fall in northern Maine.
You had been on a hunting trip all week. Every day you had passed an area of forest left untouched by the paper companies. There was a mile-long jagged ledge exposed, scattered drop-stone boulders and steep mountainsides, making it difficult to harvest from the logging road. It was near were you had parked the camper—but hunting was serious business. So you waited until Sunday, when hunting was closed.
There was one area along the roadside that was flat and the trees were tall and all about 20 feet apart. The forest floor was open, dark, and free from branches. It was a short walk from the campsite. You take off your shoes and socks, and leave them at the forests’ edge. The moss is thick, soft and cool. It feels good on your bare feet. Each step is silent and deeply sunken. A few steps further in, you drop your coat without looking down, only into the forest ahead.
You need to feel the thick air on your skin.
Slowly, you leave the brilliant sunny day behind and immerse yourself in the dim light. You look back, a little weary of becoming lost, swallowed up by the forest—but it calls you further in. You tell yourself there is no way you’ll lose sight of the sunny edge where you left your shoes.
The damp, Earthy smell is so real, so true. Further still, you wander. A heavy fog, nearly a mist, had laid heavily across the wild landscape the night before. Now, in the still air of the forest, little wisps and pools of dense fog hover just above the ground.
Time passes differently under the lush canopy. Without a view of the sun or perception of daylight, it simply exists. Distance becomes somehow warped by the silent footfalls kept secret by the forest floor. Mesmerized, you turn toward a brilliant yellow mushroom, hoping it’s a Chanterelle to fry with the partridge you’d bagged earlier that day.
There are several large, meaty Chanterelles scattered amongst smaller ones, which you leave to grow. You tuck in the front of your flannel, and drop the mushrooms between it and your teeshirt. As you drop in the last one, a sting of fear disturbs your journey. How far have you wandered into the forest? You turn, and see the sunny strip is smaller, but still there. Still obvious. Your shoes are there, waiting.
The Forest calls.
In the distance, a large lump lay on the forest floor—otherwise a low, rolling mat of mosses. One more glance at the light, then you turn. You wander further in, where the trees have patches of lichen that look like large scales.
The figure does not move, but seems to grow in size as you approach.
Along the way, several purple mushrooms draw your attention, Viscid Violet Corts, with their little tan speckles and glossy purple caps. You kneel, sinking a good foot now into the moss, and tuck them into your over shirt, with the others. You slowly stand, look at the lump on the forest floor—then at the strip of light behind you.
Another hundred feet in, and the lump reveals itself as an ancient stump, larger than any you have ever seen. It must be six feet wide. You lightly lay a hand upon it. It is so soft, even the lightest touch leaves an impression. How long has it sat here? Another sting, a reminder of your shoes. The sun. Reality. Responsibilities. Bills. Politics. The strip of light to lead you back is hidden behind so many trees it was barely distinguishable now from the forest. You look back at the massive, supple stump.
You push your hand into the stump. How far in will it go? You’re not sure why you did that. Why would you reach through a stump? It doesn’t matter. Pressing your hand further into the ancient stump, you touch something hard. It’s long, and slender, with something on the end. You grasp it, and pull. It’s darker now then before. The trees are larger; the canopy thicker. Brushing it off, an unnatural shape reveals itself. It’s a very long, slender skeleton key.
Your heart suddenly beats wildly. Is this a heart attack? Your throat is tight. The dense air clings to your face, dampens your clothes. Long wisps of fog slip between trees like slow snakes, in your direction. You slowly lay back on the thick forest floor. Everything is slow here. You breathe, slowly.
A pool of thick fog pours over the stump. Somehow, your heart beats even faster. It spills over your naked feet and leaves fat droplets on your woolen pants. It’s moving fast. It covers your whole body. After what felt like an eternity frozen in a pale gray place, you were staring straight up into the canopy again. You move only your eyes at first, and cautiously look around. You sit up, with your back against the ancient stump of a long forgotten tree.
The light is barely there, you must turn back.
Clenching the mysterious key safely in your fist, satisfied you’re not having a heart attack, you wander back. The light brightens. The trees are smaller. The moss, not as thick. You had wandered a lot further than you’d thought. Finally, you see your blaze orange hunter’s jacket and head toward it. This snaps you back into realty. Humanity. The mess, chaos and darkness that comes with modern life. You pull it on, and look for your shoes.
Your shoes sit so tidy along the very edge of the sunlight strip. They look stupid, simple and useless. A sock is crumpled tightly into each, as if they would, too, wander off. You slip them on, while clenching the key. Your heart sinks as you see the truck waiting with the little camper hooked on and ready to roll. You slip the key into your deep woolen hunting pants’ pocket, and take one last look into the dim forest full of secrets. It tugs at your heart. The forest wants you to stay. And you want to, but cannot. How did that key get in there?
Walking back to the truck, a great sorrow overcomes you. A heaviness. Reaching into your pocket, you feel the key there. It felt almost like it was tingling, or very slightly vibrating. The key became rough after untold years in that tree, the moisture and air causing it to rust. But it was strong, solid and heavy.
(A) You decide to keep the key a secret. (B) The key gets caught on your sleeve as you pull your hand out of your pocket.