Broken Flute Cave. - a Short Story by Steven R. Southard
Hototo, last musician of his tribe, plays his flute on his dying day and sees the future.
Deep within Spirit Cave, the aged man prepared to play his final song. With tear-filled eyes, Hototo sat alone upon a rock in the room where the music played best.
When joined by drummers and dancers, he had often made flute music for the tribe to rouse the braves for battle, to honor ancestors, to mourn losses and deaths, and to celebrate victories and births. Today he would play his music for himself.
A fire burned on the cave floor before him, its undulating flame painting flickering red and orange pictures of light and shadow along the rough, textured walls. Due to the recent scarcity of wood in the area, only two narrow limbs fueled the fire, and they would burn out well before dawn. Still, they would be enough for the remainder of Hototo’s life.
He examined his two favorite flutes. One, adorned with dark buffalo hide strips and carved with a moon and a tearful eye, cried mournful tunes. The other, with its bright decorative hawk feathers and etched icons of the sun and dancers, played joyous and exuberant songs. Hototo chose the first flute, and laid the second one down.
As his master had taught him many summers before, he positioned the wooden flute at just the right slant, both hands gripping it, one below the other. Hototo recalled his early struggles to play. He’d learned to hold the flute and to shape his lips the right way. “There are as many wrong ways to play the flute as there are stars in the sky,” his master had told him, “but just as there is only one Chief Star, there is only one right way to play.” When played wrong, the flute sounded no better than the breathing of the wind, but when played with skill, it produced a sound pleasing to the spirits.
Now he struggled as he once had, but for a different reason. What Hototo had gained in knowledge and experience, he’d lost in energy and flexibility. It hurt to hold the flute steady; his finger joints caused him pain as he covered and uncovered the holes; his breath wheezed and he didn’t believe he could sustain the long notes.
For this, his flute’s final song, he began with clear, strong notes. They resonated through the cave, pure and sorrowful. As he played on, it was as if some of his youthful vigor had returned for one night. He blew steadily and long; his fingers moved in the old, familiar ways without strain.
His music swelled and filled the cavern. Its echoes resounded from every crevice and fissure. The flute’s ethereal timbre evoked an intense melancholia conveying a greater sorrow than he thought it possible to feel or play. The low tones sank him to deeper levels of despair, and when the pitch rose higher, it was as if the flute wailed from a broken heart. The music floated like a cloud, soared like an eagle, flowed like a river, and fell like the rain. A fresh rivulet of water dripped down a wall in front of him as if the cave itself wept. How strange, he thought, to play at his very best, at the ending of his days.
The fire’s smoke began to shift in time to his music. It wafted and waved in the rhythm of his notes, a slow and sad dance of wispy vapors. Hototo had seen this only a handful of times before, and it gratified him. It meant a spirit had heard him playing and enjoyed it.
He played a song of sorrow and despair, watching the smoke swim and sway in response. He’d never played this tune before, nor any like it. The six holes of the flute, and the overtones he could create with his breath, permitted many different tones, and they could combine into songs without limit. Today he felt moved by something inside, something he hadn’t felt before, a grieving for a death yet to come, the death of a thing he loved.
Lost in thoughts, Hototo failed at first to see the smoke shift and re-form. It drifted and separated, snaking into wavy, shapeless patterns. By the time he noticed, the smoke was congealing into four distinct vertical columns, all arrayed before him against the opposite wall of the cave, no more than three arm-lengths away. The quartet of smoke columns firmed and thickened, taking on defined contours and textures.
Hototo could no longer see the cave wall through the gray patterns of smoke. The four forms became shapes he recognized. His eyes widened as he kept playing his music. At rare times during his life, he’d seen smoke behave this way when the tribe had gathered in this cave for ceremonies of music and dance. During those events, a single spirit had come to give guidance to the tribe or to celebrate with them. But never, never before had Hototo seen four spirits arise at the same time. Nor had the old ones of the tribe ever spoken of such a thing.
Putting his flute down, he bowed his head in respect. Before him sat four kachinas, all looking at him and smiling. From their colors and the humans they resembled, he recognized them. The leftmost, the Sun Spirit, shone with an inner golden glow and appeared in the likeness of Hototo’s long-dead father. Next in line, the Moon Spirit gave off a silver light and looked like his mother. The third smoke-shape was the Earth Spirit, an all-brown incarnation of Qaletaqa, the tribe’s previous Chief. Last in the row sat the Spirit of Music, formed of shifting and multiple translucent colors, in the shape of Kotori, the Master who’d taught him to play the flute.
Head down, Hototo forced himself to look at the cave floor. “I’m honored by your presence, Spirits. Please forgive an old man for not standing.”
The Sun Spirit smiled, then laughed aloud, with the same booming guffaws Hototo had heard from his father years before. “Look upon us, Hototo. We did not come to see you stand.”
“It was your music that drew us here, my young student.” The Music Spirit’s kindly eyes held the same sparkle as his Master’s once had, though with a glow of something else. Admiration, perhaps?
Meanwhile, the Moon Spirit had elbowed her golden partner as he laughed, and showed him the same withering frown of disapproval Hototo remembered from his mother. She turned to him with mournful eyes. “Why, my son, is your tune so sad? Do you feel sorrow because you have reached the ending of your days?”
He shook his head, anxious to dispel this idea. “No, Great Spirit. My coming death does not sadden me. I expected it, it is long past due.” He winced, waiting for a sudden chest pain to pass. “No, I mourn the death of music in my tribe.” He turned to the Music Spirit. “I am sorry, Master, no young braves wanted to learn the flute. Now, the tribe has gone, seeking better hunting. I am too old, too weak, and could not leave with them. So, the music now dies with me.”
In the silence that followed, the fire crackled as each of the kachinas looked at the others.
Finally, the Sun Spirit began laughing again. The other spirits smiled, including the Moon Spirit. As if suddenly realizing the humor, the Earth and Music spirits joined in the laughter. By now, the Sun Spirit shook from full-throated howls, while golden tears dripped from both eyes.
Hototo felt hurt and humiliated. “Why do you laugh? Does my sorrow amuse you?”
The Earth Spirit made the hand sign for calm and silence. The spirits’ gaiety died down, though the Sun Spirit tried to suppress occasional snickers.
When he spoke, the Earth Spirit’s voice rasped like the tread of a moccasin on pebbles. “No, Hototo. We do not delight in your sadness. But when you say your music will die with you—” He paused to chuckle— “You do not see what we see.”
Hototo’s left knee ached with stiffness, so he shifted its position. “What do you see?”
“To begin with,” the Mother-Moon said, her eyes full of sympathy, “we see you dying. It is the way with all people, and your time arrives soon.”
“But the sun will continue to rise and set,” said the Father-Sun.
“And many, many cycles of the Moon will pass,” said the Moon Spirit.
“You see the future?” Hototo asked. “The time yet to come?”
“A very long time in the future,” the Sun Spirit nodded and spread his hands. “As many years as there are people in your tribe.”
Hototo’s eyes widened. His tribe numbered over seven hundred.
“The years will pass across this land,” the Earth Spirit said, “but your flutes will stay undisturbed in this cave, safe from animals, safe from weather. New tribes will settle, and much about your own tribe will be lost and forgotten. In that time, new people will come to the land. They will see your pueblo dwellings and ask who built them. Those who live here will say, ‘The Anasazi built them.’”
Hototo gave a puzzled frown, for the word meant ‘ancient enemy’. “Why will they say that?”
“Due to the losses and errors of time,” the Moon-Mother said, “your people will be known by the name others call you.”
“That saddens me,” Hototo said.
“There is more.” The low, grinding voice of the Earth Spirit echoed through the stone chamber. “A man from that time will explore this cave, the first visitor in all those hundreds of years. He will find your flutes. He will give a name to this cave.”
“It has a name. It is called Spirit Cave.” Hototo knew no other name for it. Only in this cave did the kachinas ever appear.
The Music Spirit shook his head. “This explorer will not know that. Your flutes are different from those of other tribes and he will think there are pieces missing. He will call this place ‘Broken Flute Cave.’ He will try to play your flutes, but will not make music.”
Hototo nodded. “Only a sound like the breathing of the wind. Will this man find a master to teach him?”
The Moon Spirit shook her head, her silver hair swaying. “There will be no master, no one who will know how to play flutes such as yours.”
Filled with despair, Hototo sighed. The knot in his stomach tightened. “It will be as I fear, then. My tribe’s music will be lost. And you laugh at this?”
“Things will not end there.” The Sun Spirit glowed more as he smiled. “Many years after the explorer, another man, a man of music, will think about your flutes. He will wonder why two flutes would lie here, carefully preserved, yet broken in the same place, with the other pieces both missing. He will think maybe your flutes are not broken and will try to play them.”
Hototo chuckled. “Without a master to teach him?” He could not imagine that.
“Yes,” the Music Spirit said. “But he will be curious and determined.” He pointed a bony finger at Hototo, a finger that rippled with changing rainbow colors. “As you would be, if you were in his place.”
Pondering this, Hototo realized he would indeed try to play a strange musical instrument if he found one, and would keep trying until he succeeded. He felt a dark cloud beginning to rise away from his thoughts. “Will this man find out how to play?”
“In time, yes,” the Music Spirit said. “He will chance upon the proper angle, the proper way to form his mouth and blow. It will surprise and please him when the tones sound. He will say the flute itself taught him to play.”
Hototo managed a smile. Having a flute as a master seemed an odd way to learn. He had another thought. “Will he play my songs?”
“No, they will be lost,” The Moon Spirit said, her eyes downcast. “But these people will create their own songs.”
“What is more,” the Music Spirit’s eyes gleamed, “this man will teach many, many others to make and play flutes such as yours. They will call them Anasazi Flutes.”
“And knowledge of them will travel far and fast over the land,” the brown Earth Spirit moved a hand from left to right. “Across the world with the speed of an eagle.”
“Now you see, Hototo,” the Sun Spirit beamed, “why we laughed when you said your music would die with you. It will lie dormant, but will one day spring forth, reborn from human curiosity and persistence, to sing to the world.”
Hototo let these words soak in. It pleased him to know his own flutes would play again in a far-off time. “Will you spirits show yourselves to the flute players of these distant years to come?”
The kachinas looked at each other, as if deciding who should speak and what to say.
“In the full ripeness of time,” the Earth Spirit said, “many things are possible,”
“I know one such thing.” The multicolored Music Spirit looked down at himself. “I could use a new human likeness.”
Astounded, Hototo looked at his former Master. Did he truly mean another person would take the form of the Music Spirit?
“Until the next time we meet, Hototo.” The Sun Spirit gave the hand sign for departure. “It will be soon, within the realm of the spirits. Thank you for your music.”
All four spirits faded to smoke and drifted away.
Hototo coughed, and the pain in his chest seized him again. “Until the next time, kachinas.”
Enemy flute, he thought. Broken Flute Cave. Despite the pain near his heart, he laughed aloud and the sounds of his mirth echoed along the rocky corridor. After a happy sigh, he set down his sad-music flute and picked up the other one.
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Cover photo by kiwi thompson.