The young lady who recently overhauled my website and gave it a new, more hip-and-happening look is an Arizona-based website designer named Valerie Schweda. She also happens to be a damned good photographer and she recently sent me the photograph above. It is a night-blooming flower, Peniocereus greggii, otherwise known as Queen of the Night, native to the desert southwest, that only blooms one night a year, starting after sundown, and lasting only for a few hours. And that single sentence may be the most tragically romantic thing I’ve ever written.
The flower was traditionally used by the Tohono O’odham tribe for medicinal purposes and like so many other cultures, the Tohono O’odham used mythology to explain the mysteries of the world around them. Think of Zeus hurling thunderbolts at the earth whenever he’s in a fit of pique; that’s why we have lightning. Or, more appropriate to the mythology surrounding the Queen of the Night, think of Demeter. She was the Greek goddess of agriculture and the harvest, but her daughter was so beautiful that Hades kidnapped her and took her to the underworld, causing Demeter to go into mourning, which kind of ruined the harvest. Ultimately, Zeus had to step in and work out a deal to keep the earth from starving to death, so Hades gets to keep Persephone six months out of the year, when Demeter mourns and we have winter, and then Persephone goes back to her mother for six months and we have summer and a bountiful harvest and food to eat.
Well, the Tohono O’odham have a myth to explain the Queen of the Night. Ms. Schweda kindly sent me a version which I decided to re-work in my own words, partly in the interests of copyright infringement and partly because I can’t resist.
A young Tohono O’odham maiden fell in love with a young Yaqui warrior, as maidens and warriors are prone to do all over the world, and she ran off with him to be his ever-loving better-half and to live with his family in their neck of the woods. The young maiden’s aged mother, known as Old Mother White-Head, just like Demeter, missed her daughter more than somewhat and would go into the desert at night to talk to her daughter’s spirit.
But one night, her daughter’s spirit didn’t answer and the Old Mother White-Head knew immediately things were not right. Because she was an old lady, she knew she couldn’t make the long journey all by herself, but because she was wise in the ways of the world, she was able to persuade the animal spirits to help her. When she got to her son-in-law’s village, she found her daughter had given birth to a boy but was dying. The young maiden’s dying request was to ask her mother to take the boy back and raise him as a Tohono O’odham.
Needless to say, the Yaquis weren’t crazy about that idea, so the old lady waited until night. Then she put the baby in a basket and set out with the Yaqui warriors in pursuit. The animal spirits took pity on her and tried to help, sending birds down to confuse the warriors and obscure their vision, but Old Mother White-Head just could not go on. Collapsed and dying in the desert, she called upon the O’odham Creator, L’itoi, and asked him to take the boy back to her village and to grant that she might be beautiful in death. Which is why for one night a year, the withered, stalk-like cactus blooms beautifully with a white flower where Old Mother White-Head’s hair was.