Dreams of Cactus Fields and Prickly Pears
by Mark Reed
Art by Nikki Baker
It was a good day for a ride. The thought had just crossed Jenny’s mind when the horse spooked and tossed her out of the saddle like a rag doll. She landed on her side. Her head landed on a rock. From her newly acquired horizontal point of view, she watched the horse gallop away in a cloud of dust, along with her water, bedroll, rifle, and saddlebags. She set out early this morning to explore the desert landscape of the Big Bend while her husband was away on business. Jenny seized the opportunity to explore when she could; the wide-open country settled her. She was a good half a day's hard ride from the ranch, and alone.
“Worthless piece of shit!” she spat at the horse galloping away in the distance.
Jenny felt around the inside of her mouth with her tongue.
“I still got my plug,” she said, pleased with herself, just before she lost consciousness.
En el nombre del Padre, del Hijo y del Espíritu Santo. Amén. Jenny heard someone speak as she began to regain her senses. It sounded like a man’s voice. Then she felt water being poured over her head. Am I being baptized? Oh, no, I am not! She opened her eyes just in time to see a man, all skin and bones with long hair and a long beard, blow smoke in her face. She sat up straight as a board and yelled, “Holy shit!” The man fell backward in surprise and Jenny discovered, in addition to being undernourished and unkept, the man was naked. A group of native people encircled them, wide-eyed, and they were naked, too. “Holy shit!” Jenny repeated.
“What is this holy shit you speak of?” the man asked.
Jenny quickly surveyed her surroundings. She was in the midst of a gathering of hundreds of native people, she guessed, both young and old and in between. The man resembled a picture of a Spaniard you might see in a history book, if the Spaniard was starving, over-cooked, and dried out. Dawn was approaching and the camp was humming with activity.
“Am I dead?” Jenny asked.
“No. The people found you and brought you to me. They consider me a healer,” he said. “What are you wearing?”
“They’re clothes. Ever hear of ‘em?”
The man laughed. “Your tongue is strange, but I understand it somehow. What is your name?”
“Jenny. What’s yours?”
“I am Cabeza De Vaca.”
“No. The Head of a Cow,” the man explained.
“That’s what I said. Cow Head. Strange name.”
“We are traveling to fields of cactus fruit this morning. You are welcome to join us.”
He stood up. Cow Head was holding a staff with a cross at the top, which appeared to be carved from one piece of wood.
“What year is this?” Jenny asked.
“It is the Year of our Lord 1535.”
“Yup. I’m dead.”
Using his staff as a walking stick, Cow Head led the people toward the cactus fields. The procession grew in numbers as it went. Where were they coming from? It was a long walk and Jenny tried not to stare at Cow Head’s skinny, brown, leather-skinned butt. He’s a holy man! She decided it was best to walk next to him. Jenny knew the desert landscape, and the land they traveled seemed familiar, yet different. It was mid-morning, and the sun was hot; sweat dripped from her face.
“How do y’all survive out here?” Jenny asked.
“We listen to the land and the seasons,” Cow Head explained. “This is the season when the desert dreams of fields of cactus and prickly pear. At first, I thought it was my dream. I was wrong. I dream the desert’s dream, and the desert has brought us here.”
They crossed one final ridge, and then Jenny saw it. Cactus covered the land, its ripe red fruit shimmering in the sun, as far as her eyes could see. The people, who had walked in silence as if on some holy pilgrimage, ran toward the field, laughing. Jenny was overcome with thirst and joined them. She tore the fruit from the cactus and took a big bite from its inviting flesh, the juice of the prickly pear running down her chin. Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies. Jenny looked out over the cactus fields, and the people slaking their thirst and satiating their hunger at this table prepared in the desert. Lack of water is the enemy out here. Then, as if on cue, a dark cloud came down from the mountains and the rain fell. The parched and thirsty land drank deeply, and the people danced and laughed and danced some more. She could feel the joy of a grateful people, and a grateful land, in her bones. I’m either dead or dreaming, but it doesn’t matter one bit!
“Hey, Cow Head. Will heaven be like this?”
“The land dreams of a new heaven, and a new earth, Jenny.”
It was a good day for a dream. “Here, drink this,” Doc said. Jenny took the glass of cool water and drank it down. The taste of prickly pear lingered on her lips. She was in bed at the ranch with a bandage on her head, and her husband and the doctor were staring at her. Their faces bore a worried and troubled look.
“Thank God you two are wearing clothes!” Jenny spat.
“I think she’s going to be okay, Doc,” her husband laughed.
Jenny felt around the inside of her mouth with her tongue.
“Has anybody seen my chew?”
Mark Lawrence Reed has been traveling Texas with his wife over 35 years. He's worked on the kill floor of a packing plant, as a dishwasher, a guitarist, a pastor, and prison chaplain. In retirement, he writes and travels from South Dakota. He is currently working on a story titled "Shortcut Through Apache County" sparked by a trip through The Navajo Nation.
Niki Baker is a passionate impressionist painter, insightful creative, mother of three, and entrepreneur. Her vision is to empower outdoor enthusiasts to find better wellness and live in the now through inspiration and positive reflection. Her works are authentic and challenge viewers to see the world through an energetic, vibrant, and adventurous lens. She derives her subjects from her travels and love of hiking. Her most recent works were inspired by her trip to Big Bend in the Spring of 2022. You can see all of her artwork on her website at www.nikibaker.com.