The sidewalk gave out before the dwarf forest. Stone slabs just stopped, the last half-buried in small mounds of green moss. A trail led on through the stunted trees. Fifty-year-old redwoods barely the height of a man. A tall person might look out over the canopy like an evergreen corn maze.
After the trees came the sacrifice. Six steps on the path would find the wanderer slapping at flies. Small black flies that left bright red stains when crushed. They swarmed around the trees. Lizards played amid the branches. Fat and thin, dark and horned. Pink tongues flicking out. Crests inflating when it was time to mate. Jerky leaps from branch to branch, unseen but heard.
Farther in were toads, snakes, and snails. No mice or shrews, no birds for long. The lizards and snakes ate the eggs. Squirrels and hawks were your dirty secret. Invaders from a different world. The dwarf fortress was not a place for mammals. Children, or those adults that dared to descend to their knees and crawl, knew the secret.
Foul-smelling mushrooms lay among the needles and fallen bark. Liver-colored blobs that smelled of rotten meat, swarming with black winged bodies. Iridescent trails left over everything gave a fairie-tale look. The snails and slugs were fat and happy. Hidden from most predators. Serpents looped and lazed where trees had fallen, absorbing shafts of sunlight.
The path looped and twisted. No deer-path. Too broad for the scale of the forest. The trees grew together overhead. Even children had to crawl. Looping around and around, toward the center. Glacial rocks, grey and irregular, grew more frequent. Miniature boulders. Slug trails over scratches in the lichen-covered stone. Traced vague figures in the broken rock. Petroglyphs long faded, half effaced. Spirals on spirals.
Fire burns through every fifty years or so. A spark on the dry needles, a cataclysm of lightning from the sky. The toads bury themselves, the snakes and lizards swarm out in all directions. The forest can burn for days. Dark brown seeds pop in the heat, send forth thin grey roots into the ashen soil. Stark embers pointed to the sky like a field of stakes, as the green shoots come up again.
More people can walk the path, after the burning. Some of the little stones are glassy, as though fired by a greater heat. Funny thing, the locals at Corn Rock say. The lightning always hits the center of the dwarf forest, when it comes. Maybe once a century.