The barren, tan corn stalks behind her snapped in the cold evening breeze, the only sound louder than the dry, fiery red leaves swirling around her tiny, shivering bare feet. She’d lost her bearings again and she hoped the dinner bell would ring soon. A gray tree with endless arms and fingers, devoid of any remaining foliage, loomed before her. She gazed at the odd markings on the trunk, which appeared to outline a hand-cut door of sorts. And, as she stared, it opened…

(Stories need only touch on this topic in some way to qualify.)

Desiccated corn stalks snapped in the chilly evening breeze and brittle leaves rustled underfoot as Priscilla ran down one row, then another. She’d lost her bearings again and hoped her mother would soon ring the dinner bell.

Suddenly, an unfamiliar gray tree with clawing bare branches loomed before her. She gazed up it at its broad trunk and noticed odd markings outlining what appeared to be a door. As she stared, the door opened, throwing a pale light from the mysterious portal.

It was terribly impolite to snoop but Priscilla could not help peering inside the tiny opening. A kinked stairway, fashioned from the bows and bends of the massive tree’s roots, wound away, down into the depths. Jerking her head from the door, Priscilla took another look at the dun landscape. No road, no hut, no fence, no guiding markers of any kind; only lines of wind-thrashed corn stalks stretching away in all directions.

An enticing aroma drew Priscilla’s attention back to the door, where warm air rose from the depths. As if she needed more prompting, a tempest wind shrieked, rattling the tree limbs, and whipping the corn stalks into a frenzy.

Priscilla stepped over the threshold, but had descended only to the second stair when the door behind her swished closed. She turned back but its outline had vanished. She felt for the door’s edge, scratching at crevices, alternately pushing and pulling until she finally frustrated herself in vain effort. It was then she realized that darkness was not absolute. Turning, she saw a dim blue glow coming from the foot of the stairs. Then, the taunting smell of roasting nuts assailed her senses and a griping belly urged her forward.

At the base of the stairs, tunnels ran away in several directions. The light, which had drawn her, came from no candle, but luminous mushrooms. They grew in the tunnels, illuminating with a faint watery glimmer that made Priscilla shiver, despite the warmth.

Scurrying, scuffling noises and the murmur of voices drifted out from tunnels, which all looked identical. One tunnel, however, appeared somewhat larger and well-trodden. Priscilla crawled inside it, moving stealthily forward, peering behind her every so often to ensure she was alone. Ahead of her, sounds of merry-making grew but it was the fragrance of stewing food that drew her on.

She rounded a bend and a large hall opened up before her. Drawing quickly back into shadow, Priscilla peered into the vast room lit by the combined glow of an immense cooking hearth and the same luminescent mushrooms that lit the tunnels. Strange creatures were gathered, looking very much like her mother’s garden gnomes, except for their squinty little eyes and long, bulbous noses, which twitched as they spoke, with great enthusiasm, among themselves. Their cupped ears were enormous, too, and waggled ridiculously when they gestured with stubby arms.

Priscilla was reminded of moles, the bane of her father who claimed they ruined his crops. She had believed him, too, until she learned that moles didn’t eat corn. Then, his rigorous efforts to eradicate them seemed pointless, even cruel.

She sniffed the aromas emanating from the hearth and her stomach growled. Immediately, the room fell silent. All heads turned, squinty eyes peering in her direction. A chill of fear raised goose-flesh across Priscilla’s forearms. Then, one of the Mole-Gnomes hobbled forward, his grey beard dragging on the hard-packed earth. His eyes, a mere glimmer of black, peered vaguely up into the tunnel. His nose trembled and his ears flicked nervously.

“Come, Child, we have been expecting you.” He spoke slowly, mouthing the tricky human words with great care.

Perhaps it was curiosity, or perhaps rising hunger compelled her to behave so rashly, but Priscilla climbed down from the tunnel to stand amid the Mole-Gnomes. Some drew close, peering up at her, sniffing, ears vibrating. Others seemed ill at ease, mothers drawing children protectively to their sides as she rose to stand, towering over them.

Though she could not sit at their tables, nor upon their teensy chairs, they made room for her near the hearth, considering her comfort by laying out sacks of nuts covered with mats made with tightly woven stands of dried corn stalk.

Priscilla smirked, wondering what her father would make of these Mole-Gnomes.

To Priscilla’s dismay, the creatures remained timid — even fearful — as evidenced by their tweaking ears and quivering proboscises, so Priscilla did her very best to put them at ease. She moved slowly, fearing to trample or otherwise molest them, and she spoke softly, aware that even her hushed voice echoed loudly around the high-domed chamber.

Three women brought her drink; some dandelion juice in their largest kettle. She accepted it graciously, her pinky finger raised decorously as she tipped the small gourd and tasted the unfortunately bittersweet liquid. Once she had drunk the juice, though, the Mole-Gnomes cheered, and from that point on, their previous enthusiasm returned.

One of the Mole-Gnomes produced a reed flute and played a lilting Gnomish tune. Dancing broke out and laughter punctuated their chittering conversations.

Then, quite unexpectedly, their faces began to spin. Priscilla blinked, trying to stop the room’s disquieting motion. One of the young males, his ears and arms quaking, offered Priscilla a platter. She accepted the tiny disk, astonished to see bright-yellow kernels of corn amidst the mash. “But, I thought you didn’t eat corn?” Priscilla slurred her words and frowned, perplexed as much by her slurring as the corn.

“We don’t, Child.” The elder Mole-Gnome, dark eyes glittering and nose trembling eagerly, cooed to Priscilla as she succumbed to the tainted juice.