(First published October 31, 2013)
I’ve been saving this story for the right time, and I guess now is as good a time as any. After all, Halloween is the night we face our fears. Whatever you’ve been told about the pagan origins of the autumn festival, it really boils down to a single bit of ancient wisdom. Every once in a while you have to unleash your demons and let them run wild, just so the rest of the year they’ll leave you alone.
Sometimes, a bad scare does you good.
But, I don’t want to get all Vincent Price about it. This isn’t a story about demons or monsters. It’s simply about a fright I had one fall afternoon in the forest…
It was the day I happened upon a strange mound poking up from the forest floor.
To be sure, the forest can be pretty creepy in autumn. It isn’t just the dead stuff—the shriveled leaves and the slimy decay—it’s the light, too. Unlike the flat gray of winter’s naked canopy, the fall forest is still shady, and the lowering sun streaks through the sky-holes like bright swords, practically blinding you from the glare. As you walk, the effect comes and goes, so that one minute you’re fine, and the next, all you can see is a confusing jumble of dark shapes, backlit by searing gold light. Suddenly, mossy boughs seem to reach out from every angle like hairy, twisted arms, and twigs criss-cross everything like inky scribbles. It’s disorienting.
This particular afternoon, I was wandering on the loop trail, trying to get a little fresh forest air and some exercise. It had been a long day of painting in my studio and I had been a bit unsettled by my subject, a giant wolf spider. I could still see the plump, hairy body with all those legs and eyes—eight of each—plus that enormous set of fangs. I try to love all creatures great and small, but wolf spiders give me the serious willies.
As I walked down the trail, I tried to move silently to see if I could sneak up on the resident coyote. I had seen plenty of his scat so I knew he was lurking around somewhere, but the crispy leaves underfoot made too much noise for stealth, so I decided to hunt for mushrooms instead.
I came into a shady spot beneath towering Doug firs, hemlock, and maple. The understory was thick, and most of the forest floor was in deep shade. It was the perfect place for mushrooms. I was investigating a colony of tiny bright orange mushrooms along the side of a decaying hemlock when I noticed an odd shape—a mound—poking up from below a clump of ferns. Maybe it was a giant puffball, or a one of those mushrooms that looks like a sponge. Hmmmm…interesting.
I reached down, parted the ferns and squinted into the shadows. All I could make out was a silhouette—a rounded shape about the size of a melon, half-buried in the forest duff. The domed top was covered with clumps of thin, dark strands gleaming in the rays of golden light. Strange, it looked just like someone’s shiny black…
I leapt backward. The mound was a head. A human head.
I let out a shriek and then froze solid, feeling a sickening surge throughout my body. The forest seemed to suddenly lurch away from me, as if yanked backward by a giant tether. I could see nothing around me, hear nothing but the sound of my own pounding heart. The forest had vanished and there was nothing left but me and the hideous mound rising up from the forest floor.
I knew it was just adrenaline—the heightened yet narrowed focus, rising blood pressure, dilated pupils— it’s the classic “flight or fight” response—nature’s little bag of tricks for the primal struggle of Eat or be Eaten. Without it, our ancestors wouldn’t have amounted to anything but sabertooth tiger chow.
I tried to calm down so I could decide what to do. Had there been anything in the news about a missing person?
Stupid question. Of course there had been, there were always missing people. The TV news was nothing but a grisly string of stabbings, gunfights and murder. And now, I’d be one of those ridiculously awkward headlines, “Hiker Finds Head Hunting Mushrooms.”
I needed to call someone. Dail 911, that’s what you’re supposed to do. Always call 911, even if you’re not sure you should, that’s what they teach you. Better safe than sorry. Soon there’d be sirens and cop cars and flashing blue lights. There’d be reporters and News Vans and Chopper One. They’d tape off the whole forest and set up spotlights, and uniformed people would bustle around holding clipboards and talking on cellphones and picking stuff off the ground with tweezers. Eventually, they’d start hauling things away in black plastic bags.
Call 911! I fumbled through my pockets. Damn. No phone. I remembered now, it was at home on my desk, charging. Crap.
What should I do? Run, screaming, hoping I could find someone with a cellphone? There wasn’t a soul around, I was pretty sure I was the only person in the entire forest. I was completely alone…just me and a severed head.
I peered down at the black hair shining in the beam of sunlight. It was so thick and healthy-looking. How sad. This had been a human being, probably someone young and beautiful and in the prime of life. What a sick world.
The sun disappeared behind the branch of an enormous maple, and the pool of shade around the head dissolved. In the flattened light, it was actually easier to see. I dug in my pocket for my ipod-touch. I should take some photos. The detectives might need photos.
Grimacing, I squatted, balancing on the balls of my feet. I set the ipod on flash and reached out my hand as far as I could. Nice thing about ipods, it’s easier to take photos at arm’s length. I touched the glass to focus on the head, and pressed the button.
There was only a millisecond before the flash went off, but it was long enough for the thought to register. I was going to see this thing fully lit. I hadn’t considered that. I knew it was only half-buried, but was the face showing? Would I see eyeballs staring back at me?
Before my imagination could kick into full panic mode, the flash went off and for a few long moments I saw the afterimage still burned into my retina: a melon-sized rootball of maidenhair fern, probably partially dug up by some animal, and topped with an odd-looking tuft of shiny, black, hairy fungus. Weird, but perfectly natural.
Roots and fungus.
I laughed out loud and fell over backward and lay flat on the leaves for a moment, staring up at the darkening sky. What an idiot. Scared of fungus. Thank goodness my phone was dead. I cringed thinking how embarrassing it would have been to call 911 to report a fungus.
As I walked back home, I thought about how fear affects us. These days, it seems like the whole world runs on fear, and most of it is based on miscalculation, misperception or hype. The least likely things to harm us seem to occupy most of our concern. We’re afraid to walk in the forest, but not afraid of driving on the freeway. We’re afraid of being un-armed, but not of a world where everyone is armed. We’re afraid of kidnappings and serial killers and mass-murderers, but not of climate change and mass extinctions. The fear response that once saved us from being eaten, is now eating us up.
I knew I wouldn’t ever be afraid in the forest again. It’s not good for the body or soul to be paranoid all the time.
A good fright once a year is enough.