The valley appears before Elias like an open wound, festering with a fever heat between swollen hills. It seems fresh, unfamiliar to the man who has taken that route near a dozen times before. He ponders whether he has unknowingly veered from course. Easy to do so when traversing the western expanse of Texas desert unaccompanied. Yet there is something out of place here. Nature is known for her many glorious perfections, as well as her deceiving imperfections, but even so, the design of the valley appears suspiciously unnatural. The hills circle the valley with the impression of a small crater. Elias seems to stand at a steep opening down towards the valley floor, while miles directly ahead he can barely make out a pass between the hills. It seems as if he is being led into the valley’s maw.
Elias’ steed, Brandy, shares his suspicions, for she refuses to climb down the passage, going so far as to squeal and buck in a fit each time he so much as nudges the creature forward. Whereas Elias could have overridden his own reservations with the valley, he is willing to trust his horse’s instincts. Brandy seems to be more afraid in that moment than she has ever been encountering rattlers or other more immediate dangers. Elias prepares to move them around the valley’s ring, despite the significant amount of time it will add to their trek.
He tugs lightly on Brandy’s reigns, attempting to steer her away from the ingress, but it proves to be too much for the already anxious mare. She enters a panic. Her hooves lose traction on the loose rocks near the hill’s edge. Together they stumble forward, crashing down the jagged path. Elias is thrown from Brandy’s back, a miracle that saves him from being crushed beneath her weight.
A moment later they are on the valley floor.
Part of Elias’ believed miracle is that when he gets to his feet and examines his injuries he finds them to be mostly minor. Among scrapes and bruises the worst he sustains is a sprained ankle. A limp, his souvenir.
Elias’ poor bronco, his trusted partner, his Brandy, is not so lucky. He hobbles over to her still body lying in the dirt. Wheezing, labored breath is all she can muster. With trepidation he gently rests his hand on her chest. She winces in pain and he pulls back. Brandy is broken. Elias can’t bear it.
With one last pet and a drawing of his Colt, he eases her passing.
Following the cracking echo of his pistol a resounding silence rushes in and fills the voided space. After passing a moment to pay his respects, Elias turns to face the valley floor that stretches before him. While upon the hill’s edge he could feel the heat that was trapped within the bowl lapping at his feet and his face. Now he is swimming in it.
He decides to leave his pack with Brandy, grabbing only his canteen for the long walk ahead. Any more weight will only slow him down. If he is still headed in the direction he believes himself to be, the next town will be only a day’s ride ahead (three, on foot). There he can secure another horse and come back to retrieve his belongings. Assuming coyotes and the like don’t drag it away with their dinner.
He only has to move forward.
What is the hesitation? The faster he walks, the sooner his current hell will be over. But the unease which gripped his horse seems to touch Elias now as well, for there is a feature of this valley that stands out to him as he faces it from the ground.
All that lay between Elias and the horizon is overgrown with cacti. Each one the size of a person. Those not so lumbering might match that of a child. He is thankful there are much fewer of that stature, for they unsettle him the most. The more he observes them in his staggered passing, the less plant-like and more statuesque they appear. He has seen this kind of cactus before, many a time in his various travels, but never in such numbers. The familiarity he has, as well, doesn’t feel like that of a man recognizable with terrain, but something… different. He cannot place it. Though try as Elias might while he walks through the valley of their shadows.
The dirt is loose, closer to sand, forcing him to pick up his feet as he walks, despite his weak leg’s tendency to drag itself. He can’t help but feel that he is sinking, slowly, almost imperceptibly, as if the ground is attempting to pull him below without his notice. He figures this to be a delusion of heat, the same effect that creates waves on the horizon working similarly on his mind.
Elias hasn’t made it far beneath the unforgiving sun when the sweat his body is producing proves to be too much for his skin. His clothes become rough with friction, chafing him to the point he suspects he will bleed. One could posit the surrounding hills are the walls of a gargantuan forge, the way they are cooking him.
In an attempt at the mildest of reprieves he begins to shed his duster. He gets it past his shoulders and to his elbows when it catches on something. Elias is able to fully remove his right arm from the vest, but not his left. As he pulls, he can hear the thread lightly tearing. He feels around the area of resistance and touches something thin, like a needle, between the fabrics of his shirt and vest. After a brief, frustrating attempt to grab hold of the foreign object fails him, Elias elects to use the next best thing – brute force. With a firm grip on his half-discarded coat, he yanks.
The irreparable ripping sound that follows is accompanied by a snap and a sharp pain unlike any he has experienced before. Elias grips his elbow, feeling dampness thicker than sweat, and draws his hand back to find it slick with blood. He pulls his elbow closer for inspection and through the sleeve he sees a deep puncture wound near as thick as a pencil, though the sensation he felt was not penetration, but of something being removed from his body. Confounded and honestly quite fearful of this unknown, he searches the newly torn vest for the culprit. What he pulls out is unmistakably a cactus needle, nearly two inches in length. Impossible that the needle could have pierced him recently without his knowledge, he thinks. He hadn’t even gone near one of the several surrounding cacti, but what other explanation could there be?
He discards his vest and continues his walk. Now twice wounded, Elias refuses to let the throbbing ache in his elbow slow him down any more than his leg already does. The sun eases itself down the sky towards the hills ahead of him. He imagines it pulling the earth up over itself like a blanket for slumber. The cooling air is a joyously welcome feeling near the end of such a tumultuous day. He is not far from the passage and believes he can make it by the sun’s full setting. There he can seek shelter for the night beside some of the newly visible outcropped boulders.
Then Elias begins to notice the full extent of his hell.
The back of his left shoulder begins to itch like fire. Elias reaches up towards it with his right hand and the confident familiarity that comes with one’s own body, then immediately withdraws because of a sharp sting in his palm. Fresh blood layered atop the dried from before.
He reaches back again, slowly this time, and feels around for the needle. His fingers tap around it, then grip the thing. This one is much longer, deeper he can feel once he applies pressure to its rigid body. His hand aches as he clenches a fist around the needle and tugs. His upper body jerks with it and he grimaces. It is buried deep.
Once more he grips it, ignoring his palm and his shoulder and leg, and with a deep breath he pulls with the full strength of his arm. The needle tears out of him, the sound of parting flesh deafened by his own shouting. Elias can feel hot blood spilling down his back. He inspects the needle, and beneath the thick layer of red coating its bottom half, to his horror, he sees roots. The needle is obviously no accidental transplant, but a growth. How or why in God’s name, he has no idea. But he cannot deny it.
Immediately Elias becomes suspicious of his surroundings, the paranoia also taking root and growing exponentially. He scans the cacti, the sheer number of them, and notices again their striking similarities. All about his height, all with two “limbs” outstretched at shoulder length, no more, no less, and as he hobbles closer to the nearest one, he is stabbed again.
He falls to the ground, for the attack is upon his legs this time. Elias looks down at them and notices not one, but several smaller needles exuding from his legs, thigh to foot and all around. Terror rises in him as his imagination runs wild. He considers staying down, but he has a suspicion that needs to be confirmed.
Carefully, he gets to his feet. He shuffles towards the nearest cactus. It is only feet away but it may as well be a mile. Despite his efforts to keep his legs spread, the needles scrape flesh opposite them with every step. Blood pools in the heels of his boots.
When he reaches the cactus he holds his crimson palm out for balance on its shoulder, spacing his fingers around its own spikes. He stands face to face with it, quite literally. Beneath the verdant, ribbed flesh of the cactus are the indistinguishable features of a human face. The subtle curvature of cheekbones, the sunken sockets of what were once eyes, the narrow bump of a nose in the center. Clearly, it had been a man once, just as he is.
Elias turns; all the cacti seem to be watching him. He cannot be sure that they aren’t.
He fears what he is to become.
Suddenly, survival instinct kicks in. Without care to how much damage he is doing to his own legs, or his abdomen now that needles are protruding from his torso and arms, he makes a run for the hills. They are not far, and he is certain he can make it before the horrific transformation is complete. He clings to the hope that he will make it out of the valley as a man, and bleed out like a man, rather than bake forever under the sun as one of those godforsaken things.
When he reaches the passage he finds it to be as steep as the one he entered the valley through. But he does not stop. He climbs, stumbles, gasps for breath, loses his footing, climbs faster. His vision blurs. He doesn’t know whether it is from exhaustion or from the change, but he does not care. It does not matter. His head is pounding with the force of a hammer. He cannot stop. There is no stopping. Over and over again the needles puncture him. Elias does not stop.
He makes it to the top.
It has become near impossible to separate his thighs in step. They have fused together and are tightening on the way down to his ankles. Elias twists round for one final look at the valley. Is it for confirmation, to assure himself that it has all been real? Or is it in defiance? A look back to say, “I made it, I won”? He cannot say. Everything goes black after that.
When he awakens a stranger is by his side. The man had caught up to him on the trail, days later, miles away from Elias’ dead horse. Elias is uninjured, though severely dehydrated and suffering from heat exhaustion. No scars, no sign of blood.
Elias lies in a bed provided by the Samaritan in a cabin that is unfamiliar to him. Despite not knowing where he is, he feels safe. For days he does not attempt to leave the lodging. He recovers quickly, but he dares not step outside. Instead he ponders. He pores over recent events in his mind, scrutinizing their every detail. Every sharp, piercing pain left in his memory by the cursed needles. To the stranger Elias’ recounting of events seems to be the delusions of a desert drifter. Each time Elias talks of the valley, the Samaritan corrects him.
“There was no valley,” he says. Elias had been found in a desert plain that stretched as far as the eye could see. No nearby hills. No cacti, not in the numbers Elias describes. Just the sunbaked hallucinations of a lost traveller.
“But you must believe me,” Elias pleads.
“I do not know how the valley vanished, nor where it is now. But you must believe me. It is out there.
It is out there.”