There is a valley, where grow flowers of every hue and kind, colors and fragrance in harmony. They sing songs, it is said, in spring and summer, songs whose ghosts and echoes can be heard in winter and fall.
These flowers are singular, for each is inhabited by an animating spirit.
The valley is haunted, they say.
Even warriors and fighters would not venture there. The foolish tried sometimes, driven by arrogance or greed. For there were many undiscovered treasures, it was said. There were those who wandered into the valley by accident, and were redirected onto a path that led them out of the valley. Such folks spoke of mesmerizing songs wafting through the air. Of grave injuries that were healed by the juice of a petal. Or grave injuries caused by piercing of thorns and flowing of acrid sap. But most who wandered into the valley never came out again.
The valley is vast, and traveling around it takes many, many weeks. So many weeks that travel between the two regions that are split by the valley is rare. The regions send messages back and forth carried by doves. And they send longer, less pressing messages to and fro carried by trustworthy travelers.
But Ada had learned that there was once a path through the valley. A path that allowed folks to travel to the regions beyond in less than half a day.
In her sixteenth year of life, having succeeded at all her rites of passage, Ada declared to her mother and father that she would venture forth into the impassable valley of flowers and try to find this path. To prepare herself, she had learned as much as she could about the valley from the writings of her town’s scribes of the stories told by those who had tried to pass through. Furthermore, she would seek the one who ruled the valley, if there was such a one, and ask permission for passage on the path for the people of her town.
Her mother spoke first. “The bees do not bother these flowers,” she said. “The birds do not bother them. They grow and thrive by some magic that is different from the magic of nature.”
“I know, Mother.”
“And what do you know, daughter?” her father asked. “Do you know us? Do you know what we will say?”
Ada did not answer.
“We forbid it,” her father said. He held up his hand before she could protest. “Many who are older, wiser, stronger, and more capable have tried and failed. I know you have a drive to journey, to explore, a longing for adventure.” He offered a small smile. “You have inherited that from me. But there are other journeys, other worthy and difficult challenges for one who was still a child only one winter past.”
“What’s the harm in trying?” Ada said. “I will not fail to speak well for and of our people.”
“The harm is to you,” her mother said. “You would be changed by any journey, and you might find danger on any journey. But you might also find joy. This journey that you have declared is full of only danger and only darkness.”
“Isn’t it strange, Mother, that a valley full of flowers can be filled only with danger and darkness?”
Despite her studies, Ada did not understand how people could get lost in a valley whose entirety was visible from their hilltop town, and from their sister town across the way.
“Perhaps the others failed because they are so old and wise,” Ada said. “Perhaps they were not innocent enough.”
“You are hardly innocent,” her mother said, raising a brow.
“Perhaps not, but I am more so than you are, Mother,” she said. “Or you, Father.”
Her father crossed his arms and her mother peered at her with narrowed eyes.
“I am past the age when I must heed your every word,” Ada said, “and yet I have done so, and will do so whenever I am in agreement with you. This time, I am not in agreement. My first adventure will be in service of my town.”
Her mother’s eyes widened and a glossy sheen appeared on them. “We only warn you because we do not wish for it to be your last adventure.”
When Ada left in the morning, her father was not there to see her off. Her mother stood at the threshold of their home. She gave her daughter a talisman, a polished stone that appeared dark blue on the surface and shone beneath the surface with the colors of the night. The stone was wrapped in a silken cord the color of walnut wood. Ada had never seen the piece among her parents’ jewelry. She wondered if it was something her mother had acquired and hidden away for just such a moment.
“Keep it on always and never lose it,” her mother said, “for it is my way of looking after you on your journey.”
Ada left her home. She left her town. She entered the forest that bordered the valley of the flowers. She had brought enough provisions for several days’ journey, but she hoped that she was carrying the weight for naught, and that it would only take her a few days, perhaps even only one, to reach the opposite side of the valley.
As she walked through the quiet forest, a strange feeling fell upon her. Ada began to notice that the forest was growing darker and the trees larger. She had never ventured this far before. As a child, she had met the challenge of a dare to step one foot inside the forest. Though she began to feel a nervous apprehension, she kept going. She climbed over a massive rock, twice her height, and passed through the hollow of a log so large that she could walk inside it without crouching.
By noon, she reached the edge of the forest and gasped when she saw the valley just before her. She understood what had happened. She glanced back at the forest. The change was so great and yet it happened so slowly, so subtly, that she had not known what was happening to her until that moment. She had been slowly shrinking as she trudged through the forest, shrinking and shrinking, until now, she was the size of a common house mouse.
When Ada entered the valley now, she would not be striding through flowers and bushes that stood as high as her ankle, or at most, her knee. She would be plowing through surroundings that were now as thick and formidable as the forest she had just traversed. This explained how people could get lost, and why so many did. And yet, none of the accounts Ada read had even mentioned anything about shrinking.
Ada glimpsed a path, a clear path through the thicket of tall green stems and layers of overlapping leaves that walled the valley. Two tulips with yellow bulbs stood straight on either side of the path. Ada had never known of any tulips with thorns, but these two had long thorns emerging from their stems, like lances at the ready.
Ada gulped, her mouth and throat dry, as she approached the sentries. She did not know what to do, so she did as she would if she had arrived at an unfamiliar town. She announced her name and her intention to travel through the valley and seek audience with the one who ruled it.
“Be forewarned,” a voice spoke without sound. It was as if Ada had breathed in the words, the meaning. “You are not invited to this realm. You may enter, but you are not welcome.”
Ada frowned in confusion. She thanked the sentries for their warning and informed them that she would take her chances in the realm. She stepped forth carefully.
They let her pass.
As soon as she entered, Ada thought she heard singing, a tune being hummed by many voices, but so softly that she strained to hear it. She wanted to close her eyes and concentrate, but the path before her was clear. She wondered how long it would take her to traverse the valley at her current size. She would revise her calculations when she stopped for rest. She was the size of a mouse. If only she could run on all four limbs as a mouse. She might move through the forest more quickly.
As she had the thought, something rustled in the great towers of orange and purple celosia that she was now passing through. She stopped and hid, worried that she might have summoned a mouse with her thoughts. Birds, beetles, and bees were forbidden to enter the valley. Surely mice would be as well. After all, mice ate seeds, and disturbed the earth that flowers rooted in to make their burrows.
At her current size, she doubted she could fend one off if it decided to be unfriendly.
Ada hid and watched until the sound of the rustling faded. Whatever had made it had moved away.
She kept to the path, passing every variety of flower she recognized and many that she did not. Beds of vivid red geraniums, then stalks of swaying bluebells, and rows of poppies with ruffled golden yellow petals. Though none of the flowers addressed her or hindered her, she felt eyes watching her, not like her eyes. Different, aware of her presence, and disapproving of it.
She took to watching the sky for the passage of the messenger doves, taking comfort in knowing that she was not alone in her crossing of the valley. Though, she also felt envy and longing, for her journey would be long and hindered at best.
That night she was afraid to sleep, and she certainly did not want to sleep on the path. She had stopped at a stand of sunflowers. Ada had always thought sunflowers had friendly faces. She asked permission to bed down at their feet for the night. They did not answer as the tulips had answered, but she when she inhaled after asking, she smelled permission being given. She tried to be as good a guest as she could be, spreading out her bedroll, making no fires. It was warm enough in the valley. She clutched the talisman her mother gave her, and finally fell asleep.
So it was for a few days. Ada warned herself not to succumb to the tedium of unchanging patterns.
One day, she encountered an obstruction in her path, what she thought was a log at first. But it was gray and segmented and it looked…soft. Ada walked along its length and realized that she was looking at some kind of worm. It appeared slightly different from the earthworms she was familiar with. This worm had numerous small bristles along the length of its body. And it had what appeared to be a head with two bristly feelers.
“Hello,” a voice spoke. And again, Ada heard no voice, but understood the word and the meaning when she breathed in.
Ada spoke the word “hello” in response and hoped that the magic of the valley translated her intention.
It seemed that it did, for she and the worm, the groundworm it was called, began to carry on a conversation.
The groundworm was in a sorry state. It had become stranded aboveground with not enough energy to burrow back underground, and the longer it stayed above, the drier it became.
It entreated Ada for help, for there were no others who could. It needed water, to keep it moist, and to soften the earth enough for the groundworm to burrow back under.
She had already calculated that at the rate she was going, her provisions would run out before she was a fifth of the way through the valley. She would have to find other sources of food and more importantly, water. But she had seen none thus far. There had been no rainfall, which was strange. In the current season, there should have been many days of light rainfall. It was why she had chosen to set off on her journey at that particular time.
But she decided she would find a way to survive. She pulled out one of her canteens and began to pour water along the worm’s length. She poured and poured, and water kept glugging out of the spout. Ada was stunned. The canteen had been half empty when she started pouring.
She poured more water into the dirt around the worm’s head, softening the dirt with her hands until the weakened worm was able to burrow. Before the worm submerged, it asked if there was anything it could do for Ada. Ada ask about water and asked if the worm knew a quick way to traverse the valley. The worm told her that the dew of a flower called “plumeria” would sustain her as water does, but the dew had to be given willingly. He lamented that she was not a groundworm, for under the particularly soft earth of the valley, a groundworm could travel faster than a scampering mouse.
Groundworms only lived in the valley. The groundworm called the earth outside of the valley “dead earth,” and said that it could not sustain a groundworm. But the earth of the valley was special, unique, and because of it, the groundworms were also unique, different from ordinary garden worms.
They said their farewells so the groundworm could return to the sustaining earth and fortify itself.
And Ada set out to find the plumerias.
Ada came upon the plumerias, flowers with five soft-hued petals arranged in a pinwheel pattern. They were heavily fragrant, and the air in their part of the valley was humid and warm. Ada was pleasantly surprised when the plumerias greeted her. The groundworm she had helped had taken the liberty of racing ahead of her and entreating the beautiful plumeria’s on Ada’s behalf.
The plumerias told her that it was only because of the good word of their precious caretaker that they even gave her the chance to converse with them, much less ask them for something as precious as their dew.
“We need this dew,” one of them said.
“Yes, we need it.”
“Is there any work I might do for you to earn the dew?” Ada asked.
“Will you stay with us until you perish?”
Ada felt a sudden shiver at the back of her neck. She took a step away from them. “I must continue my journey at the moment, but I can return and we can speak of it again.”
“It must be now.”
“Yes, it must be.”
But Ada again gave her polite but firm refusal again and took another step away.
“We can spare no dew for you,” they said. “But do listen to us sing before you go.”
Ada, though disappointed, agreed to hear them sing, hoping it was a gesture of goodwill, the story of which might become known to other flowers, ones who might be more willing to help ease her passage through their realm. She listened to them sing a mesmerizing tune that hummed in her mind. The air filled with their heavy perfume, and she found herself getting drowsy.
When Ada woke, she was lying on her side on the ground. Just in front of her, a mouse had her nose in Ada’s pack, and was eating all of her provisions. The mouse was as big as Ada was, maybe a bit bigger. Ada fought off the remnants of drowsiness, rose to her feet, and cried out to the mouse. She glanced around for something she might use as a weapon, but her shouting was enough.
The mouse backed up and out of Ada’s pack, and she dashed away saying, “Fair is fair and your forever fare is good.”
Ada’s sleepy mind frowned at the mouse’s strange words. But when she checked on her provisions, she found there was much more left than she had feared. And she had noticed that though she had eaten enough to see a diminishing of her food stores, she had yet seen none. Her pack was as full as it had been when she first left. “Forever fare” indeed. Even after the mouse left, half of her provisions remained, though Ada wondered if the food was ruined now that a wild mouse had touched it.
“Sorry, two-legs,” the plumerias said. “We owed the mouse a favor, and we owed you nothing.”
Ada, angry, but still observing courtesy, bid the plumerias goodbye.
She trudged onward, asking when she sensed that a flower might tell her, where she might find the one who spoke for them all. The groundworm had told her there was such a flower, the flower queen, but it had not been able to help her figure out where that queen was, for the worm only traveled underground in all three dimensions. He could not envision traveling along only one plane.
Ada kept track of her direction using the sun and the stars, and even the direction of the messenger doves flying overhead, so it did not take her long to realize that she was being directed to walk in a circle. She found she was not angry. The flowers were only defending their queen.
So she stopped asking the flowers. And she began to listen for the sounds of rough movement, rougher than the rustling movement of the flowers. She hoped to encounter another worm or mouse or wayward beetle. She hoped that she could trust an animal in the valley to tell her what the flowers would not.
Ada resigned herself to walking eastward, even if it did not bring her to the flower queen. At the very least, she would reach the other side of the valley.
Ada eyed the flowers with curiosity. She had never heard of or seen anything like it. Many flowers were fragrant, but they all had a quality in common, a leafy freshness to their fragrances. But these flowers smelled like honey and cake, and there was a warmth wafting from them that engulfed her in comfort. Entranced, she stepped off the path and toward one of the flowers to investigate. Instinctively, she pulled a stone out of her pocket, in case some creature, some minion of the flower, popped out at her.
She cautioned herself not to be lulled into sleep as she had been by the plumerias. But she found herself slowly climbing the outside of the flower, which was shaped like a water pitcher with a bulbous bottom and a tall tapering middle with a rim that folded over in a ruffled lip. It even had a lid, an open lid. Perched at the edge, Ada gazed down the throat of the pitcher and glimpsed thorns lining the inside, and a good deal of liquid in the bowl. Ada wondered if that liquid was water. She asked permission and found as she inhaled the flower’s delicious scent that she was welcome to enter.
The rim and the side of the flower was so slippery. Ada peered into the liquid depths. She thought she saw something, a form, floating. She gasped when she realized it was a mouse, or what used to be one.
Its flesh appeared half-melted off on one side. Bone was exposed. The mouse was dead, long dead. Ada snapped out of her drowse long enough to push away from the plant. She fell hard on the dirt floor, and yet felt safer than she had been a moment prior. She rose and backed away toward the path. But she was surrounded by the flowers and their enticing scent. Each time she breathed in, a burst of excitement filled her chest, leaving her breathless, and she inhaled again. Ada pulled out a kerchief and tied it as tightly as she could over her mouth. She pinched her arm hard to shock herself away from the edge of the trance.
She started running.
But they were surrounding her as far as her eye could see. And it was already growing dark. She ran and ran. But she stopped when she spotted another mouse, perched at the lip of a plant, struggling to gain some purchase.
“No!” Ada yelled, and she hurled the stone that was still in her hand, hitting the mouse’s shoulder and causing it to fall to the ground. She braced herself for attack when the mouse raced toward her, but the mouse dashed past her. And Ada thought she glimpsed a look of gratitude in the mouse’s eyes.
This must have been why the flower queen allowed mice in her valley. Some of her subjects fed on flesh. Ada ran, lagging behind the mouse. She was surprised when the mouse stopped and looked back, watching her, until Ada caught up. Then the mouse raced ahead again. Then stopped where it could still see her and waited for her to catch up. They did this until they were past the realm of the nightmare pitcher flowers.
This mouse was not the one who had eaten half of Ada’s provisions. When Ada asked for directions to the flower queen, the mouse was happy to know and to tell Ada what Ada needed to know. But she warned Ada not to go there.
“I wandered into the valley one day,” the mouse said in a series of squeaks that Ada understood perfectly well, “thinking I would find a feast of seeds. But I became lost, and I’ve been trying to find my way out.” The mouse had spent nearly half her life in the valley.
Ada told the mouse that she could tell direction by looking at the stars. She tried to teach the mouse how to use the north star to keep direction, but the mouse’s eyes were not sharp enough to distinguish the north star among the others.
The mouse did not want to go to the flower queen’s sanctuary. But she did decide to join Ada until she reached its borders if Ada agreed to guide her out of the valley.
As they continued along the path together, girl and mouse shared stories of their adventures. When Ada spoke of helping the groundworm, the mouse was startled.
“Groundworms are almost never seen aboveground,” the mouse said. “This one must have been curious. Curious about his labor.”
The mouse confirmed for Ada that the groundworms were the reason the valley remained so fertile. They churned the earth with their movement, and they nourished the earth with the secretions of their bodies. The mouse proclaimed that the groundworms were the true magic of the valley, and without them, all the flowers’ powers would diminish and then fail, and they would be like ordinary flowers.
At last, Ada reached the sanctuary of the flower queen. They had veered off the path and turned a few times. Ada had begun to worry that the mouse had gotten lost, but they soon reached a clearing, beyond which were rows of rose bushes. Ada had counted only seven days, but it had seemed twice as long. The mouse remained outside the clearing and urged Ada not to stay too long.
As she had with the tulip sentries, Ada announced herself to the rose bushes, whose red heads all grew so they faced outward. It gave Ada the impression that they were all staring at her. But they did not answer her. Slowly and cautiously, Ada moved toward and past the rows of rosy sentries. She was wounded by one of them just as she cleared the bushes.
“A ritual wound,” a voice said, her words and her meanings conveyed by a fresh and flowery scent.
Ada clasped her right hand against her upper arm. It had been sliced along almost its entire length, and it bled freely.
“Come forth. Come,” the voice said.
Ada had not seen her at first. The flower’s face was as wide around as Ada was tall. Rows upon rows of cupped petals made the face appear luxurious. Every petal was rich and dark red, even richer and darker than the red of the roses.
The flower queen was a red dahlia.
“Here, sit upon my leaves,” the flower queen said, and a leaf emerged from behind her head and lay on the ground before her face.
Ada’s eyes widened. She had never seen a flower move under its own power. She peered at the leaf and under it. Surely, a mouse or some other creature had moved the leaf at the queen’s command.
Ada did not know how dahlias typically smelled, if they had any particular scent at all. But the queen’s voice, her scent, was coolly cordial. Her words were most welcoming, and yet Ada did not feel welcome. She reminded herself that she was not a guest, but a traveler and supplicant. She remained standing and bowed deeply. She announced herself and her purpose.
“Why do you seek audience with me?”
“There is a path through your valley. But it is a small one, and it takes long to traverse.” Ada hesitated, then decided not to add “and there are many dangers” for fear she might insult the flower queen. “I ask permission to traverse your valley in my native form, which is far larger than my current size.”
The great head of the dahlia bobbed as if it were nodding.
“I understand your dilemma,” the flower queen said. “But I do not grant permission.”
“Great queen, I ask only that you consider the request, and perhaps speak to more of my people, my elders. I am certain you would be comforted by their wisdom and nobility.”
“Even if I were to believe that you would traverse our valley without harming us—which perhaps I do—I cannot allow others to do so. And you cannot make promises on behalf of your people.”
“You have sentries,” Ada said. “Perhaps we too could post sentries, and guards along the path, guards who have your personal approval, and who will ensure that my people remain on the path.”
“Your people…your people are wanderers. You are curious. And you are meddling. You will not remain on the path.”
Ada thought for a moment. She could not deny or counter the queen’s words. Ada could imagine some of the children from her town sneaking past the guards and plunging in amongst the flowers, trampling them in reckless play.
The leaf before the flower’s head shivered. “Do sit down,” the flower queen said.
Ada thought and quickly dropped to her knees. She was still clutching her wounded arm. But she released it and touched her right hand between her throat and chest, where her mother’s talisman lay beneath her tunic.
“I am a supplicant, great queen. I am not worthy to sit before you.”
“Not worthy…how strange for your kind to speak so. I know of how ill-treated flowers are by your people.”
Ada flinched, then frowned. “My queen it is not so. We care for flowers and prize them highly.”
“Indeed, you cut off their heads and string them together as a grotesque decoration for your own plain forms. You cut them off at the feet, so they are suffocated of earth and water, and they are packed together and presented as gifts from one of your people to another, to die a slow and cruel death, clinging to eat other in a stagnant pool of water.”
“Is this not so?” the flower queen asked.
Ada could give no answer to such accusations, for they were true.
“I…see the value in bringing us down to your size,” Ada said, striking upon an idea. “If I were not so small, I would not have known that the flowers were not the only inhabitants of this valley. I would not have met the groundworm. I helped it in an attempt to be kind to the subjects of the valley, as I knew you would expect of any who travel in and through your realm. But I am glad to have met the worm. I found it to be most charming and worthy of protection.”
Ada thought she perceived a curling of the flower queen’s petal, and took that to mean a softening of the flower queen’s demeanor.
She did not think it wise to reveal to the flower queen that she knew the groundworms were the flowers’ weakness, that without them, the valley would decay and fade.
“Your attempt to look after your people is valiant,” the flower queen said. “But I do not grant my permission.”
Ada sighed. Not out of frustration. Not quite out of defeat. But out of resignation.
She glanced up. Beyond the brambly rose bushes, she spotted a messenger dove soaring above them. She’d seen birds fly over the valley time and again, and wished that she could do so. She wondered now if that bird could swoop down and carry her out of the valley. She was certainly small enough to fit upon its back.
She wondered if the messenger doves could be trained to accept riders. And she wondered about the range of the spell upon her that kept her small. Would it fade on its own if she left the valley?
Ada tried to shake off the distracting thoughts so she could think of another argument to make to convince the queen to at least speak to someone, to consider Ada’s request.
The queen began to sing then. Ada’s eyes widened, but before she could respond, she felt a sudden surge of drowse overwhelm her.
When Ada woke, she sat up straight, and found herself in her own bed. And for a heartbeat, she wondered if she had dreamed it all.
Her head pounded and there was a clean bandage wrapped around her upper left arm. Even without those signs, she knew that being in the valley of the flowers was no dream. She tried to remember how she had found herself at home. She did remember trudging back. She was her native size when she did. She remembered being careful where she stepped in the valley of the flowers, and searching for a mouse, and finding her way back in only a few hours. She remembered being so exhausted that when she saw the borders of her town, she felt such a wave of relief that she dropped into sleep then and there.
Ada’s mother came in then and greeted her and embraced her.
“Your father wanted to pick some daisies for you, to brighten you mood when you woke, but he thought better of it considering where you’d come from.”
Ada nodded. She would not be picking flowers again. She must convince others to stop as well.
But first, she asked her mother how she had ended up at home. Her mother explained that someone found Ada at the edge of the forest, and that she had been gone for a fortnight. Her parents had worried, but her mother comforted her father by telling him of the talisman. Her mother knew that Ada was still wearing it and that it was helping her. Ada still wore the talisman.
“It protected me?” Ada asked.
“Apparently not.” Her mother explained that she had entreated the maker of the talisman to imbue it with a spell to resist the valley’s magic.
Ada smiled and said that it might have worked after all, only in a different way. Her water and food stores seemed to last far longer than they should have if they had shrunk proportionally. But they lasted as long as she would have expected if they were still their original size, and sustaining an Ada that was much, much smaller. That was why there seemed to be so much more water in her canteen than it could possibly hold. And why her provisions were still plentiful even after a mouse had spent hours eating them.
Her mother wanted to hear of all Ada’s adventures. But she started at the end.
“And did you meet the queen?”
“And you entreated her?”
“And her answer?”
“Then why do you look so happy?”
Ada grinned. “I am happy to be home and in one piece. And I may have an idea, Mother. A foolish one perhaps, but far less so than wandering into the valley of flowers.”
“Let me get your father then. We will listen to you before we say ‘no.’”
When Ada laughed, her mother looked startled. She had probably expected her daughter to protest and to insist and to cajole and to goad. Ada had not succeeded in convincing the flower queen to open a path, or even to open negotiations with Ada’s town’s elders. And yet, she felt proud about her first adventure. She felt lucky to have survived it, and foolish for having ventured it, and relieved and happy to be back home, back in her own soft bed, breathing air that was fresh and light.
When her mother left the room, Ada caught movement at the corner of the doorway. A mouse sat cautiously at the threshold. She rose on her hind legs and met Ada’s gaze. Ada grinned and raised a hand to the mouse, who dropped back to all fours and scurried away.
Copyright © 2019 Nila L. Patel