A few years ago, the mother of a dear friend passed away. As often happens, some of the mother’s possessions were offered to those who’d known her as tokens of remembrance. Another friend who’s a plant lover was especially interested in keeping alive some of Enid’s favorite flowers, so a bush or two and some potted blooms came back to Houston, while a scrubby little cactus in a hanging basket went to live at The Place.
For years The Place, a cabin tucked into 23 acres of Texas hill country valley, was my favorite “getaway” destination. The cabin itself, about 16′ x 16′ with windows all around for cross-drafts and a screen door that slapped shut with a terrific, metallic “thwang”, had all the modern conveniences: a wood burning stove for heat, Coleman lanterns, an old apartment-sized propane stove and “running water”. The “running” was true, but a bit of a joke. It was gravity-fed from a barrel in a tree through a single faucet into the “kitchen” sink. A hand-built dam pooled water from the three springs that ran even in the most severe drought, and a submersible pump tucked into the little pool did a fine job of pushing water up into the barrel.
The valley itself was filled with scrub and live oaks, pin oak, black walnut, native cherry and the inevitable hill country cedar. After every heavy rain, stray artifacts were scoured from the Indian cooking mound behind the cabin. Farther up the hillside toward the ridge, you still could find chert nodules lying about like petrified Osage orange, raw material for the scrapers, arrow heads and spear points that were fashioned around the fires.
Along the creek, tadpoles and water striders darted beneath canopies of maidenhair fern and hundreds of fossils – clams, whelks and mysterious heart-shaped shells – lined the limestone creek bed. Armadillo and deer scuffled and snorted their way through the nights, while javelina traveled the rocky arteries by day. In summer, lightning bugs rose from the damp and decaying bottoms like shimmering steam. When autumn arrived, I longed to see a first freeze split open what we called ice plants, their tall, slender brown stems unable to contain the bubbling, curling froth of water that betokened inexorable winter.
Through it all, through the sweltering summers and winter frosts, the cactus lived in its basket, hanging from a hook near the cabin. Sometimes in sunshine, sometimes in shade, it was watered by rain, or by the occasional visitor who’d throw a bit of water on it. It didn’t grow, but it didn’t die. It simply was.
Because we kept waiting for it to do something, I named it Godot. Once named, it seemed less prickly and more accessible. People talked to it, and gave it extra drinks. It seemed to become a bit greener, but it didn’t grow. Another year passed, and then another, and Godot continued to simply hang around, a tiny, inscrutable bit of landscaping.
Eventually, things changed. One thing led to another, and The Place was sold. It was like another death, and once again possessions were distributed as tokens of remembrance. Amidst all the activity, Godot was nearly forgotten, but on a trip back a few weeks after the sale, I saw Godot hanging by the cabin. Filled with guilt and chagrin, I called the new owner and asked if I could have Godot. Of course I could, and so it was that Godot made his way back to Houston and began a new life with a few other cacti on my patio.
The years of hanging out in a deserted valley hadn’t hurt Godot, but his gray plastic basket was looking a little ratty, so I decided a repotting was in order. I found a nice clay pot, filled it with good dirt, and plunked him into it. Just as he’d done at the cabin, he sat around, prickly and plain, tucked next to some lantana and a spineless cactus started from some pads also brought from The Place.
One day, I glanced and him and thought, “What?” He seemed to have grown. I started paying more attention, and realized that new dirt and regular watering was working its magic. He was growing, a quarter-inch at a time. At the end of a year he’d grown a full three inches, and then, last year, the miracle happened. A funny little “something” appeared near Godot’s top. After a few days, I realized it was a bud. A few days after that, it became clear: Godot was going to bloom.
Walking outside a week later, I was astonished. My scrubby little cactus had produced a gorgeous pink blossom, with a yellow center and beautiful, frilly petals. I admired it from this way and that, thrilled to have such a wonderful surprise from a plant we’d all assumed to be, quite frankly, an under-achiever. Waking on the second day, I thought, “I need to get a photo of Godot’s blossom.” Unfortunately, that also was the day I learned another important lesson about cacti. Some of those blossoms last 24 hours – period. Godot had done his thing, and the show was over. The bloom was off the cactus. There would be no photo. I was devastated.
This year, I began watching in early spring, hoping for another bloom. Apparently Godot was feeling even more chipper, because he set two buds rather than one, and the bloom-watch began. Just before my trip to Mississippi, it became clear that blossoming wasn’t too far away. Nervous about missing a photo op again this year, I actually thought about taking the cactus with me on vacation. Instead, I took the advice of my local plant guru and brought him inside, where lower light levels and cooler temperatures slowed him down a bit.
Returning home, I put Godot back into the sunshine and discovered it was showtime. Within a day his buds, which hadn’t changed a bit in my absence, began to show their pink.
After two more days, the blooms began to open: first the petals, and then the bright centers. They were larger than last year’s single bloom, on longer stalks that made them even showier next to the plain cactus.
Once the process started, it was full speed ahead. Only six hours later, the blooms were fully opened, and bees were coming from everywhere. I couldn’t detect any fragrance, but any bee cruising the neighborhood surely couldn’t miss the big, bright blossoms.
The blooms remained open for the rest of the afternoon and evening, but as dusk approached, they began to pull in their petals, as though to close for the night. By the next morning, they had curled up quite tightly, and within 24 hours, Godot’s blossoms were completely shriveled. The stalks remained for several days, giving him the appearance of an amusing, Southwestern version of the cartoon character Domo.
While fully opened, the blossoms were almost chameleon-like, taking on the nature of the changing light and changing color accordingly. The distinctiveness of each image is really quite astonishing.
Today, the excitement is over. Godot’s gone back to living his life as an ordinary cactus, a pedestrian little plant hardly noticeable among the lantana and geraniums. But he’s given me something to ponder as I wait through this year for his next, wonderful show. Looking at Godot, I remember that appearances aren’t predictive, that even the plainest among us can produce spectacular beauty, and that whenever unexpected beauty appears we should do our best to pay attention before its fleeting reality fades before our eyes.
Looking out my window I see sparrows plucking seed from the surface of Godot’s dirt and occasionally daring to reach between his thorns. The bloom stalks still attach to his body by the thinnest of threads, almost as though the cactus itself hates to relinquish that last reminder of its momentary glory. Laughing to myself, I walk out to the patio, take another look at my plain little friend and say “You go, Godot. You really do.”
Comments are welcome. To leave a comment or respond, please click below.