Stations of the Heart Chapter 15: The Consistently Unstable Ground

Jed knew this feeling all too well. He had felt the earth tremble beneath his feet many times since entering the forest, and now, in the desert, he was feeling it again. Without hesitation, Jed darted up the basin, climbing upward on all fours. The sand flew out from under his feet and palms but Jed raced like a rabid animal to get out. Jed stumbled over the rim of the basin and recovered himself. Wild-eyed, Jed looked down into the basin he had just escaped and saw still another piece of vegetation push its way up from underground, but this time it wasn’t an old, regal tree. It was a wicked-looking giant cactus. It pushed itself up, violently quaking the earth as it did, until it was about thirty feet tall off the ground. It had leveled the ground inside the circle of flag staffs, and the basin was no more. What stood in front of Jed now was a crooked, giant cactus with needle-point thorns as long as Jed’s body but a thousand times thinner. They were packed together incredibly tightly so they numbered well into the millions. At the top of the cactus, unblemished by thorns, was a beautiful flower colored the same majestic blue color of the raising tree seeds, of which Jed was still carrying a couple in his pouch. It was an insane looking plant, with eight arms that bent like elbows in all directions; one down, up, forward, backward, and every direction in between. Jed was backing away from it, but kept his eyes affixed to the deranged cactus that was still cascading sand from its twisted form. He wanted no part of the malevolent-looking cactus and he began to try to decipher the direction the flag staffs were leading him in before they dead-ended at this enigmatic cactus. His hand still stung from being pricked by the thorn of the cactus; a smear of damp blood was congealing in his palm. The cactus stood quiet, towering over the desert like a gnarled sentinel. After Jed decided on a direction, he walked on cautiously, keeping an eye on the cactus and making sure to walk well around it. After a while of uneventful walking Jed became more assured that the cactus posed no threat to him, but it still lingered in his thoughts. He couldn’t shake a feeling of strange pity for the odd plant. Its contorted form almost gave it a demeanor of resentment. It stood completely alone in the desert. Jed imagined that it was once a straight, normal-looking cactus and over time, it wrenched itself in defiance of the desert it so resented for making it live an existence of solitude. Now it was an ugly mutation of what it use to be. These thoughts provided Jed with a transitory distraction from the reality that he still did not know where he was going. He continued to imagine what the cactus may have looked like before it became warped and crooked. Then Jed grew cynical of his own thoughts and figured that he was giving too much life to an object that was not even alive. Jed checked himself, ‘Of course it’s alive’ he thought, ‘ it pushed itself up from the ground, and even if its body is dead, that beautiful flower on top of it was definitely still alive.’ The flower. The flower that was the same color of the raising tree seeds he kept in his pouch. Jed stopped his aimless trek. The cactus was now well behind him but Jed turned around and looked at it. He was far enough that it looked to be only half of its actual size, but still close enough that he could see its crooked profile in the distance clearly. He took a few steps forward to get a better look. He was curious. Just how similar were the colors of the flower and the raising tree seeds? When he got close enough to see the color of the flower, he pulled out a seed and held it out in front of him so that in Jed’s view, it was juxtaposed to the flower, still well off in the distance. He closed one eye and compared the two closely. There was no mistaking it; they were exactly the same color. At the very moment Jed came to his conclusion, he detected some movement in the cactus. Subtle at first but as Jed squinted his eyes and studied the giant plant he could see that it was…writhing. It’s giant stock was swaying and its bent limbs were reaching in all directions for some invisible prize. It was almost as if the cactus was squirming in pain, or reaching for something. But what? Jed held out the seed further toward the cactus and when he did, the plant twisted and roiled more intensely. It sensed the seed, it wanted it. Then the squirming stopped and the great cactus fell over and crashed down on the sand. The impact sent a veil of sand over the downed cactus and sent a shock-wave that Jed felt under his feet, even at the safe distance he stood away from the desert plant. When the cloud of sand settled, Jed could see that the cactus lay completely felled on the ground. Jed’s pity for the cactus evolved into full-fledged sympathy. He no longer feared the now defunct cactus off in the distance. Instead, he felt an inexplicable kinship with the solitary vegetation, like they were the same on the inside. Against all the logic that plead for Jed to stay put in that moment, Jed began walking back toward the cactus. As Jed got closer, he noticed the flower, which was now level with the ground, was still writhing as though pained, and its blue color was radiating and becoming intensely deep. Now Jed was standing only a dozen feet away from it. It struggled more fervently as Jed got closer. He stopped. The flower was alive with movement. Its abysmal blue pedals were flowing so languidly that it became impossible to tell where one ended and another began. They undulated like the fluid swells of the deep sea. Then the flower began to unfurl. Jed was put on guard again. Something was happening. Slowly, the flower was spreading itself open. A translucent ooze began to seep out at first. Jed stepped back. The flower now heaved in pained, sequenced, pushes. Then something began to emerge from its center. It was some kind of tail. It was spiked and covered with the natural, gooey sap from the flower. A pair of rough, scaly hind legs pushed free out of the flower now, then a long torso, and finally, with one last great heave from the flower, the creature was completely emerged. It was covered in the sticky slime of the flowers innards. The flower itself now lay emaciated, pale blue, and dead. There was no movement for a while and Jed began backing away in fear. Then the creature that emerged from the flower began to move tepidly. It shakily rose to its feet and turned to face Jed. It was a giant lizard four times the size of Jed. It was covered with horns and spikes so that it resembled the cactus itself. Spikes ran the length of its spine down to the tip of its tail. Four great spikes stuck out of the crooks of each of its elbows. Its body was covered in thick scales like plates of armor. Rows of spikes ran down its back. There were horned-plates protruding from its face and spikes lining the ridges of its jaw. Its chest was furrowed with thousands of sharp-pointed plates. The eyes were rimmed with spikes and its brow was jagged and hardened. Atop its massive head were six huge, curved horns. It looked like touching the softest part of this creatures body would cut your hand wide open.

Jed was stunned. The lizard was obviously disoriented and as Jed looked into its wild, searching eyes, he could see that it was incredibly weary. The lizard caught sight of Jed and Jed turned to run for his life. The massive lizard shook off what he could of the gunk from the flower but it was still dripping with it. It staggered maladroitly after Jed who was running at top speed. Its eyes were half-open and tired even though they were well protected from the flying sand with narrow eyelets and rough scales. It desperately chased after Jed who was able to keep a distance of about ten feet between he and the creature as he ran. Then the creature spewed forth from its mouth a long gluey tongue and whipped it toward Jed. Jed felt air rush by his face and caught only a glimpse of a fast moving object that struck the ground next to him and flung up granules of sand before flashing out of sight. Jed stopped to turn and face the lizard, he knew he could not outrun it for long. The lizard stopped running as well as Jed examined it to see what kind of weapon it had used to try and strike him, but Jed saw nothing but the lizard. They squared off for a few seconds then the lizard lunged at Jed but Jed rolled under it as it jumped so that they ended up facing each other again but now on opposite ends. The lizard was done sizing Jed up and this time there was no squaring off. Instead, the lizard immediately shit its viscid tongue out at Jed so that Jed could now see what had nearly struck him when his back was turned. Jed could not react in time. The tongue was whipped out quicker than Jed could blink his eye, but luckily the weary lizard’s aim was off and the syrupy tongue struck the sand at Jed’s feet. Another lightning-quick strike hit nothing but air above Jed’s head as he ducked just in time. Jed could not dodge the tongue, he knew that. Each strike had been closer than the last and the lizard, with half-open eyes, was correcting his aim with each attempt. Jed knew the only way to avoid the lizard’s lingual weapon was to anticipate when it was going to be deployed. Jed strafed slowly to his left studying the lizard carefully. The lizard was aiming. Jed focused on the monstrous reptile’s eyes- there was a slight twitch. Jed leaped to his right and sure enough the lizard’s tongue darted toward where Jed was standing. He had found its tell: a subtle spasm of the lizard’s bulging ocular muscles. Jed had bought himself some time, but how could he escape this situation? Jed thought rapidly as he kept his own eyes on those of his reptilian menace. Another twitch, another lunge, another near miss. The lizard roared a raspy, high-pitched squeal in frustration. Jed knew he couldn’t keep this up for much longer, but then an idea hit him. Jed slowly but steadily backed up, back toward the giant felled cactus. The lizard pursued its prey with single-mindedness and determination. The cactus was close now. Jed backed up close to it, waiting for the moment. The ocular twinge, Jed jumped forward and the sticky tongue darted above his head and struck the cactus, only this time it did not recoil back to the lizard’s gaping mouth. The tongue was impaled in at least a dozen places by the tightly packed spikes of the now lifeless cactus. It was stuck.The lizard wheezed and wailed shrilly in pain. It’s mouth was still agape and its long, pink, soft adhesive tongue stretched out straight between it and the cactus to which it was now stuck. Jed had to act quickly, he knew the spikes that stabbed the lizard’s tongue in place would not hold for long. Then Jed carefully approached the cactus and cautiously put both hands on an individual spike. He braced himself, dug his heels into the sand and began pulling hard. The spike, its host now dead, was brittle and did not offer much resistance. It broke off after a moderate use of force on Jed’s part, and he now held in his hand what may as well have been a rapier. He gripped the base of the long, narrow, but still incredibly sharp spike with both hands. Jed knew the long needle would have no effect on the reptiles skin, but Jed was eying its open mouth. He walked close to the incapacitated reptiles head. It was struggling mightily. Jed raised the spike, intending to thrust it into the lizard’s open mouth and down its throat. The spikes would not hold the creature’s tongue for much longer so Jed had to act quickly. He primed himself but he was hesitant. The beast thrashed and Jed heard the creaking of the spikes that were stabbed through its tongue. It was now or never. “I don’t want to do this!” Jed spoke to the lizard. “I shouldn’t be made to do this, it’s not right.” Jed looked into the eyes of the lizard. They were filled with fear. It looked so desperate, so weary. Jed held the spike to the lizards mouth, raised it above his head, and thrust it down harmlessly into the sand near the lizard’s long, cloven forelegs. Jed couldn’t do it/ He was sympathetic toward the creature. In it’s eyes he saw the same fear and desperation that Jed himself had felt so many times in this place. But Jed knew the creature would not be bound for long so he began to run. He hoped the lizard would be stuck long enough so that he could run over the horizon and out of sight. He did not get far. Jed failed to mind the lizard’s vicious tail and before Jed was out of its reach, it whipped Jed across the head in a final desperate attempt to subdue its prey. It worked. The impact sent Jed flying and he hit the ground just a few lengths away from the momentarily downed reptile. He had been hit so hard, he could not get up. he felt a haze creep over his mind. He was losing consciousness. The spiked tail had not only blunted Jed but also opened up a gash across Jed’s forehead and down to his left temple. The slashed flesh was bleeding bountifully and flowing into Jed’s eyes. He struggled to keep them open but unconsciousness was overtaking him rapidly. He couldn’t move. He felt a sensation of slipping calmly away from himself. Jed summoned all his strength to fight the sensation when he heard a sound that jolted his very core and ignited a deathly fear inside his mind. It was the sound of spikes snapping off of the dead cactus. Through a milky, crimson veil provided by Jed’s own blood, Jed saw the giant lizard break free and slowly lumber towards him. He saw the bloodied beast get closer and closer through a filter of blood-red until it was standing directly over him. Jed felt the hot breath of the creature as it belted out a triumphant, droning roar. Jed was terrified. It was over, Jed knew, and as the last bit of awareness seeped out of Jed’s mind he felt the all too familiar sensation. The sensation that seemed to define all of Jed’s experiences in this place. Jed felt the earth shake beneath his body. then he slipped into unconsciousness.