In the Captivating Boughs

A tall majestic oak tree stands in the dense forest
“In the Captivating Boughs”, 16in x 12in, acrylic on canvas

The day we were captured by a rogue oak tree, it had been my turn to cook. I hunted down a few wild onions and a sprig of some herb — which I believed to be edible, mostly — and returned to camp without incident or injury. Unlike the previous day, when we had tangled with a wild boar the size of a box.

“That’s not very specific,” you say, interrupting my tale. “How big of a box?”

“Well… about the size of a boar.” 

“Now you’re being tautological.” You wait while I look that up.

“Okay. The boar was bigger than life, ruler of the forest, master of all it surveyed, ready to take on any interloper that crossed its path. Its cries shook the trees, its tusks could rip the flesh off a giant.”

“And yet…”

And yet, we had taken it down with only a crudely-made spear and a hunting knife between us. The desperation of hunger played a part. And I was furious when it made a lunge at you. After a brief tussle, the boar was panting its last breaths and you were binding up a gash on your—

“Just a scratch, really.”

“There was a lot of blood on your leg. Saying gash makes for better public relations anyway.” 

“Are you sending out press releases now?”

“No. I’m just trying to preempt any complaints from boar sympathizers. Stupid environmentalists.”

We’re environmentalists,” you remind me.

“Sure. But we don’t take the side of tusky beasts that attack weary travelers. Especially when we’re the weary travelers.”

The upshot was, our encounter with the boar was justified as self defense, and we decided to make a meal or two out of the brute. Otherwise, we might have perished of starvation deep in those woods. Hence, the need for the aforementioned flavorings, which I hunted down. A glass of Chianti would have been nice, to complement the nutty-tasting meat.

We had come to solve a mystery, in a part of Romania where people liked to talk about hauntings and myths and witches. That was for the benefit of the tourist trade, no doubt. Yet several locals had recently disappeared in this forest, rumored to have been abducted — by who or what, no one knew. 

A wide-eyed old man claimed he’d been out walking with some companions one evening when they saw a light from above and his friends were “taken up,” though he remembered little after that, until he was found wandering and incoherent near a farm. Not wishing to lose any more citizens, the officials had hired us — a couple of expendable foreigners — and sent us out to investigate.

For weeks we had traversed the woods — searching far off the beaten path, stumbling through dense thickets, scrutinizing every tree we passed, following every potential lead. Our food had run low, our spirits had sunk, and we had nothing to show for our efforts. But we weren’t about to return empty-handed.

The day after the boar incident, we had hiked several hours from our camp when we came upon a stately oak more than fifty meters tall. It seemed innocent enough, but something near the trunk caught our eye — a pile of white round rocks and oddly-shaped sticks. We paused.

Not wishing to arouse the tree’s suspicion, we casually sidled up to it, then kicked aside the leaves for a closer inspection.

“Skeletons,” you said. “Human.”

“There must be four or five, uh… bodies here. Not much left in the way of clothing. Think these are the people who went missing?”

You poked about the base of the tree looking for anything that might identify the victims, being careful not to disturb the bones. “Hard to say who they are, or were.”

We stepped back — you with hands on hips, me with crossed arms — surveying the grisly discovery and considering what it meant. While we stood there, the area beneath the tree grew brighter and I thought the sun must have come out from behind a cloud, then remembered it wasn’t cloudy. We seemed to be in a spotlight.

“What’s going on?” you said, noticing the change. We both looked up, a mistake.

Above us shone a brilliant white light, tinged with bliss-inducing greens and joyous yellows, glorious and mesmerizing. It captivated our minds and we gazed at it, transfixed. A rustling movement closed in and enveloped us in a firm grasp. We felt ourselves being lifted up as consciousness slipped away.

The dreams I had, if you can call them that, were of cozy woods and rain and wind and sun. Which sounds pleasant, except for the nightmarish feeling of being solid and immobile, unable to roam or take shelter from the elements, roots jammed deep in the ground, upper limbs thrashed by storms, unable to avoid the pecking, scratching, burrowing creatures that constantly assaulted my bark—

I woke. Why was I thinking of bark? 

I tried to shake off the dream, then found I couldn’t move. I was flat on my back, arms pinned to my side, tightly bound from head to foot by thick, woody cords woven around my body. Above me I could make out the higher branches of the oak tree and a glowing light like the one that had dazzled us earlier. I saw you nearby, also bound and lying face up, still asleep. Then your eyes opened.

“Well, I guess we’ve been abducted,” I said, just to make conversation.

“What’s causing the light?” Your mind was already at work on our predicament. You wiggled in your trap, testing its strength. “What is this, a wicker basket?”

“Branches and twigs, all criss-crossed it seems. An effective way of binding someone. And we’re high up in the boughs. The breeze is nice, though. As for the light…”

Between us we figured out that the tree made its own light, possibly from a chemical reaction that allowed it to concentrate the location of the glow by moving sap around. A photometer would have been helpful, not that I could move my hands to use it.

“It’s different from that stained-glass tree we found. Was that last year? The time you blew up the rebels who were chasing us?”

“I only scared them away with that grenade,” you said. “But I think you’re right. That tree stored sunlight to power light-emitting cells. This one uses… what’s it called? Chemiluminescence.”

Okay, sure.

Then I remembered. “Like glow sticks, except here they actually are sticks, or rather twigs and leaves. Which are quite pretty if you look closely at—”

“Don’t get hypnotized again!”

I narrowed my eyes to a squint. Leaves rustled around us, then I heard creaking as something large moved in the tree.

“Do you see that?” you asked. I opened my eyelids a notch and peeked.

A branch swung over us — like a surgeon moving an array of instruments on a mechanical arm over an operating table — fully equipped with an assortment of twigs fitted with delicate stems and sensitive leaves. They flexed like eager fingers as the branch was lowered into place above us. A leaf tickled my nose. 

Then the tree began to run its green-tipped feelers over our bodies, poking and prodding as if examining us for vital signs. It loosened the entwining trap wherever it needed to get at us, then re-tightened the weave as it moved on.

“Not too bad so far,” I said. But the tree was just getting started.

It stuck thin twigs under clothing — up pants legs, down shirt collars, into boot tops — but seemed to be frustrated by the material we wore. It tried to tear off our clothing, but the soft feelers weren’t strong enough for the task, so we were spared that indignity.

A hard twig scraped some skin off my hands and neck, possibly collecting DNA samples. Then the tree pressed more forcefully with its fingers and jammed a stem in my ribs. “Ow!” I said.

“How do we get out of here?” you asked, as the probing intensified.

“Well, we have no weapons, we can’t move, we’re a hundred feet up, and there’s a pile of bones below.” That was my optimistic assessment.

“Right. Suppose we— Aahh!

The tree grabbed your head and affixed its twiggy fingers to both temples, then did the same to me. Microscopic growths penetrated the skin, clinging and burrowing, like the root hairs that ivy uses to attach itself to walls. I had the sensation of two dozen tiny needles piercing my scalp as the tree entered my brain and merged with my thoughts.

Then the psychological experiments began.

The oak projected images into our minds — animals, landscapes, flowers, clouds, insects — and observed our reactions. I rather liked the flowers, but grimaced when I saw a large wolf spider attacking a cute little mouse. We were getting a glimpse of the tree’s world.

“Maybe we can use this,” you said, through gritted teeth. “It can hear our thoughts, I assume.”

“Hear them, yeah. But can it understand your thoughts? I never do.”

More images flooded our minds. We saw hikers walk to the tree, look up, and get caught by the light. I shuddered at their fate. In the vision there were no skeletons — yet — at the base of the tree.

You spoke again. “We need to think like something undesirable. You should be good at that.”

“You mean undesirable to a tree — this tree — so it wants to get rid of us.”

“Something it’s afraid of.”

I thought of all the bad things that can happen to oak trees — being orphaned at an early age… bullied by beeches… abused by cults… sickened by disease… hmm. “There’s oak wilt, but that mostly attacks trees back in the states. And I don’t know how to impersonate oak wilt.”

“That’s from a fungus, right? Might work. We’ll think like a generic fungus. Make the tree believe we’re a deadly parasite.”

“Saying ‘generic fungus’ is like saying ‘an ordinary cat’ — I don’t think there is such a thing.”

“Just the tree-destroying types then,” you said, “like Dutch elm disease, or wood-rotting fungi, or the one you mentioned.”

Of all the living things I’ve imagined being, fungus has never made the list. Why couldn’t the tree be deathly afraid of eagles, or sea lions? 

And I had only ever taken one class in mycology. All I remember learning was how amazing mushrooms are. When I told you that, you started to brief me on what you knew. As I listened, clear images of everything you were saying appeared in my head, even before you said it.

I stopped you. “Wait. I can see your thoughts. We must be connected through the tree.”

The mind-probing stems attached to our temples were not only reading our thoughts, they were acting like a two-way transmitter between us. I could sense you, feel your presence. We hadn’t noticed it till now.

“This will make it quicker,” you said. “We’ll mentally share what we know about fungi. And don’t think about mushrooms.” Darn.

It wasn’t exactly a Vulcan mind meld, but we transferred knowledge of a sort back and forth, while the oak continued its probing. Turns out I knew more than I realized, such as the way some fungi are spread by windborne spores. And obscure facts, like how the word mycology is derived from the Greek—

“That’s not helping!” you said aloud. Well, I found it interesting anyway.

The tree was running its feelers over our faces now. It wrapped a soft cord around my chin and poked at your lips. Time to put our plan in action.

I still didn’t know enough to convincingly mimic a fungus, but figured I could depend on you. We both began to visualize being a tiny organism… not animal, not plant… attaching to decaying wood… secreting enzymes to digest the organic matter… absorbing nutrients through thread-like filaments—

A burst of anxiety hit me like an electric shock. Through our tree-mind connection I felt you panic for a second. We lost our train of thought.

“What’s happening?” I asked. You didn’t answer. I sensed annoyance with an undertone of fear.

The oak was trying to examine your mouth. You bit off the twigs and spit them out. That didn’t stop it. A pair of sturdier twigs pried your lips apart and wiggled between your teeth, forcing them open. You jerked your head aside but the tree was relentless. It thrust in a larger stem to hold down your tongue while another crept back toward your throat. 

Your air was cut off. My heart was pounding.

As you were choking for breath, memories arose unbidden in my thoughts — your smile, your laugh, the way you silently mouth lyrics to songs when you’re too embarrassed to sing along, the way you clench your teeth when faced with a challenge, like opening a stubborn jar of relish or getting a jammed rocket launcher to fire. The tree was going to take that away.

Concentrate! I told myself. Think like the fungus, be the fungus. But my mind was a jumble of images.

I pictured the final outcome — our bodies torn apart and tossed to the ground, animals eating our flesh, clothes decomposing on the damp forest floor, bones heaped in a pile with the others. An unworthy end to our adventures. Worse, the locals would still be endangered by this forest terror if we didn’t survive to warn them. More innocent people could die.

I let those thoughts go, then relaxed and filled my mind with fungal intent. My purpose — to spread through the forest and attack the tree by slipping into its sapwood through bore holes or open wounds. I imagined myself as a sack of ten billion spores, ready to burst and cover the leaves and branches. Still the oak kept probing your throat.

I felt your presence dim, fading to darkness. You were losing consciousness. I had only seconds.

In desperation I conjured up an image of a diseased tree in its final stages of blight, weakened by a fungus — by me — its leaves mottled and gray, bark sloughing off, roots rotting away, speech slurring, a crippled oak dying in pain…

Crack! Twigs split and slid away. The woven trap around me loosened. The stems attached to my temples jerked back and ripped themselves out of my skin, disconnecting from my menacing thoughts. I heard you suck in a breath and cough as the oak pulled its woody finger out of your throat and started to unwind the branches holding you. 

“It worked,” I whispered. “It thinks we’re a threat.”

“Yes.” Another cough. You were hoarse. “Get ready. If it lets us go—”

Too late. The bottom fell out and we both dropped out of our cages. 

We were still over thirty meters up and the tree had removed our support. I grabbed on to the nearest branch and my feet swung down. Sharp twigs batted my hands away and I lost my grip. You grasped at anything you could while slipping through the branches.

And so we made our way down — clambering, falling, clutching — as the tree shook us off, pushed us away, and got rid of us as quickly as possible. Unable to hold on to the trunk, we tumbled the last few meters to the ground, landing with a bony crunch. I winced at the sound. We scrambled away from the roots, then sat a moment in the nearby bushes to catch our breaths.

After a while you looked at me and said, “You make a pretty good fungus.”

“All my friends say so.”

We got up to collect our packs, keeping a wary eye on the tree. We found some items of ours it had discarded — belts, knives, bracelet, watch. It didn’t like metal things.

“We need to report this tree right away,” you said. “It can’t just go around abducting people.”

“Not if it’s going to leave their bones lying about like that.”

You gave me a sharp look, then shrugged at my insensitive remark. “No, you’re right. It’s untidy.”

I didn’t care. We had discovered the cause of the mysterious disappearances. And I was hungry, exhausted, and sore. I assumed you were too. 

“Before we report anything, let’s go back to camp and have another helping of that boar.”