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Alone in the Valley of Shadow

by Greg Baker  
6/05/2011 / Short Stories

I love to hike in the mountains. And, if I may boast, I never get lost. Usually. This time, when the clouds rolled in obscuring the sun and casting everything into deep shadows, I knew I was in trouble. Suddenly everything began to blend together. Colors faded from the landscape and the ominous clouds hid any hint of the sun's location. I halted my return trek and looked nervously around.

I stood in a shallow valley nestled between three peaks of equal height and proportions. Pine trees and shadow obscured much of what could be seen in dark shades of green. In front of me, the valley split around one of the peaks, confusing me. I didn't remember from which direction I had come. I wasn't even sure I had been here before. I began chewing on my lower lip in indecision. You might be wondering where my compass was, and by this time so was I. I hadn't thought to bring it--after all, I never got lost.

Until now.

I held my breath to listen better and heard a faint rushing sound, but the sound could be the breeze rustling through the tree tops or the hollowness of the silence enveloping me. I kicked a loose stone just to prove my hearing hadn't deserted me all together. For some reason I felt reluctant to say anything, as if speaking aloud would only serve to emphasize how utterly alone I was.

For the first time I really began to understand what it was like to be alone. Sometimes, we seek to be alone to gain some measure of peace from a frantic world, to flee some of the pressures of life, or to escape a turbulent relationship. But in such loneliness there is the knowledge that you can return to the lives of others. There is the comfort of being able to find your way back to the company of others and that others can find you.

Where I stood, however, I felt cut off. I didn't know how to get back and I doubted anyone would stumble across me way out here. This is true loneliness, a feeling I cared not to repeat.

I studied the clouds, the peaks, the forest for some sign of civilization, anything that would give me a direction. And that's when I heard it. A faint sound like pebbles being dropped onto larger stones. It stopped abruptly after a few seconds. My eyes narrowed, and I cocked my head to listen better. Had I imagined it?

No. I could hear it again, drawing closer. It stopped once more. I couldn't pinpoint the direction the noise had come from. My heart began to pound, for I knew that nothing natural made that sound. Something was coming. Hoping the noise was human in origin, I cleared my throat and called, "Hello? Anyone there?" My voice sounded foreign even to my own ears.

No one responded, but a cascade of pebbles caught my attention and I swung in that direction trying to spot the cause. I saw a shadow disappear into the deeper shadows of the trees somewhat higher on one of the slopes.

Something was stalking me!

My imagination went wild. I thought of everything from a mountain lion to a grizzly bear. I backed off a few paces, my heart sounding overly loud to my ears. I stared hard at the spot where the shadow had slipped from
my view.

If I had felt alone before, the feeling just intensified a thousand fold. I began a silent prayer then, calling upon the only person I believed could possibly come to my aid: God. Not being a very religious man, I felt somewhat awkward doing so. I licked my lips, apologized to God for everything I could think of, and begged, silently, "Get me out of here, please!"

The sound came again and something moved deep in the shadows. I bolted down the mountain side.

Trees flashed by me and I flinched violently whenever my clothing got snagged on a branch. I dodged where I could, ducked when I had to, and jumped the larger rocks that impeded my flight. On one such jump I landed all wrong, twisted my ankle and fell hard. Pain fired up my leg and I yelped as I rolled over and over. I finally came to a painful stop next to a twisted tree trying to grow in between two giant boulders.

I lay there for a long time, trying to catch my breath and control the pain. When I at last worked my way into a sitting position, I found myself facing the direction I had come from. For all my panicked flight, I had perhaps gained no more than fifty yards distance from my starting point. Not very far at all.

Again, I cried out to God for help. My situation, if anything, had just gotten worse. I was not only lost, alone, and being stalked by some unknown animal, I was now hurt and injured.

The sound I now feared the most reached my ears and I froze, listening hard. I recognized the sound for what it really was--claws clicking on rocks. This was no deer, or other animal that would likely flee a human presence. No, this animal was deliberately coming right at me. It didn't hurry but came on in a measured stalking pace, seemingly in no hurry to finish me off.

I felt a wetness trickle down the side of my face and realized I had cut my scalp in my headlong roll. Most likely, whatever predator was approaching could now smell blood. My blood.

I was terrified. I felt around until my hand found a decent sized stone. At least I had something to throw. I sat very still, praying the animal would not see me, would just move around me, would just leave me alone!

And then I saw it.

Not clearly, mind you, but I saw it move up into the branches of a pine tree, shadow against shadow. With the clouds obscuring the sun, and the gray light fast fading, I couldn't clearly distinguish what it was. It sat there, within the shadow of the tree, staring at me and making a gnawing noise that sent shivers down my spine.

I swallowed hard and felt its beady eyes upon me. It knew where I was. It knew of my helpless state. It just watched from within the shadow of the tree, continuing to make that dreadful gnawing sound. I was dead. I just knew it.

In desperation, I threw my rock at it. It fell short, of course. I lacked the strength to hurl it properly. The creature took no notice other than to pause in its gnawing to regard me menacingly.

And then it waddled out from underneath the tree coming towards me.

Yes, waddled; for the dreadful creature stalking me was a porcupine. A porcupine! It moved towards me, or rather towards another pine tree to begin gnawing on the bark, eating away while regarding me with a bored eye. It did indeed know me and he held no fear of me. His protective quills were all the deterrent he needed to keep me at bay.

I breathed a huge sigh of relief and relaxed against my own tree. Only then did I realize what I had done. My fear had now created a worse scenario than I originally found myself in. I had a badly sprained ankle, bruises, and cuts all over from my fall. And I was still lost and alone. A childhood Bible verse floated to mind, though I suspect God had something to do with it.

"Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me."

I recognized that the man in the verse hadn't entered the valley of shadow without first knowing God would be at his side. He had gone in prepared. If I had started my trek through the mountains a bit more prepared, perhaps with a compass and a sidearm, I would not have feared the approaching porcupine. My own overconfidence and lack of foresight were my undoing.

The porcupine waddled on by, keeping a wary eye trained on me. I paid it no heed. I sat wondering what I was to do. I was a long way from help and the gray light was fast slipping away into night. I wanted to yell at God, to blame Him, but I realized I probably should have involved God before my troubles began, before I ever came to this valley of shadow.

Suddenly another sound, from a different direction than the porcupine had taken, reached my ears. I swallowed hard and fear began to creep back into the recesses of my mind. I licked my lips and yelled, "Hello? Anyone there?" My voice broke, and I felt the sting of sweat mingling with the blood on my forehead.

No answer. Just the sounds of something approaching. The shadows in the valley deepened, verging on darkness. Now, I only had my fear to keep me company. And whatever approached. Oh how I wished I'd have begun this journey better prepared!

Once again, I began to pray.

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