Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Cactus Flutes

Today, the road took me through stands of flute-cacti. I had never heard of these plants before this trip to the Golden Desert; in the past few months, though, I've seen them in at least three or four places. They are tall plants, but otherwise unremarkable - at least when they're alive. When a flute-cactus dies, though, it leaves a dry stalk full of holes, which blows soothing notes in the wind. Birds like to nest in them, as do the more musically inclined varieties of lizard.

I first saw flute-cacti in the desert around Teshirak. The villagers there tend the cacti and encourage the ones with the sweetest notes. Some cut the dry stalks and arrange them around their houses, so that the village is filled with music whenever the wind blows.

The village of Korfa also has flute-cacti growing nearby. There, skilled instrument-makers cut them and attach complex systems of wooden stops and levers, turning the dry stalks into lightweight, eight-foot-long flutes that are quite popular among dragons and other large creatures.

The smaller nose-cacti, which also grow near Korfa, play a high, nasal note like a whining child. These the villagers hunt down and uproot without mercy.

This grove seemed to be wild. There were several stalks lying on the ground, cracked and silent except for the occasional faint half-note, but I didn't see any of the stumps that flute harvesters leave behind. The wind was blowing, as it always does in the Golden Desert. The cacti surrounded me with a constant, airy cloud of chords; miraculously, they were almost all in the same key. I found myself whistling as I walked. It was hard to resist. I went through a few melodies that harmonized with the cacti, finally settling on a sea shanty by Rango Tress. At the end of the first verse, I paused to drink some water.

The cacti whistled the tune back at me.

My first thought was that the heat was starting to affect my brain. I'd been lucky enough to avoid that so far, but there's always a first time. I felt fine, though, aside from the fact that my mouth was dry from whistling.

I whistled the melody again. This time, the reply came from a cactus a few feet farther down the road.

As strange as this was, I wasn't particularly alarmed; musical plants are rarely dangerous.* I took another sip of water and kept walking, whistling as I went. The music followed me. It always came from a cactus nearby; I never heard it from a distance. After a few minutes of simply mimicking my whistling, the cacti started to do variations and harmonies.

I'm fairly sure the source of the music was a zephyr. They're some of the more curious wind spirits - perhaps the only ones that take any interest in people - and they often have surprising artistic tendencies. Many of them like to draw in fine dust and sand. I've heard that some have even developed ways of making sculptures, though I couldn't tell you how.

After I finished the sea shanty, I moved on to a few of Majenti Huddle's clockwork ballads, then to an operetta by Sherm Trupelo. The zephyr - if that's what it was - seemed to be hungry for new melodies. Out here in the Desert, there probably aren't a lot to choose from. It picked up tunes almost as fast as I could whistle them, filling in two- or even three-part harmonies as it went. Sometimes it whistled the melody and I harmonized. I'm not much of an improvisational musician, but I've sung in enough choruses, here and there, that I can make up a fairly decent harmony when I need one. We whistled jazz, folk music, concertos from the Caroque period, slow torch songs and rapid arzenroyds, even a few rock songs by the Poltergeists. The zephyr had some trouble with the idea of percussion until it found a way to knock two cacti against each other.

I must have whistled fifty songs over the course of the afternoon. My lips were getting dry by the time I reached the end of the flute-cacti. The Desert stretched out before me, seeming strangely empty with no sound but the hiss of sand blowing off the dunes. Behind me, I heard the first few notes of an old Desert song of farewell. I whistled the next few notes. The zephyr and I harmonized one last time, exchanging a musical goodbye, and I set off - with some reluctance - into the less musical section of road ahead.

As I left, I felt a tiny breath of air on my face - hardly enough to notice, except that it was blowing in the opposite direction from the wind. It was like the ghost of a goodbye kiss.

Long after the shimmering horizon had swallowed them from view, I could still hear the cacti singing behind me.

* A notable exception is the siren nasturtium. Fortunately, those only grow in semi-tropical areas, and most of them have been tamed for medicinal purposes, as their music provides a powerful anesthetic.

Labels: , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,


Post a Comment

<< Home

  • Stats Tracked by StatCounter