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Kokopelli's Fluteby Layla Lawlor
The mornings after a rain were always the brightest, and Evie sang softly to herself as she hoed the wet black soil in the garden. Most of the weeds went into a pile for chicken-scratch, though she paused as she went to gather the choicest among them. Lambsquarters and soft young dandelion shoots for a midafternoon salad, burdock to make a poultice for her aching hips — a weed, her mother had often told her, was only a useful plant growing in the wrong place.
While she worked, she sang: sometimes songs from her youth, but, most often, ones that she made up herself. There was no one around to hear a crazy old woman singing to herself.
When the soft strains of music began to accompany her, she thought at first that it was only the songs of the birds in the woods. Then the suspicion began to grow that she really was going insane, as the people in town sometimes claimed she must be in order to live out here alone at her age. The music followed and supported each one of her songs, not just the traditional ones but those she was making up on the spot. When she paused, it would continue for a few beats and then fall silent as well. No human musician could have done that.
As the music grew louder and more distinct, Evie gave up any pretense of hoeing and leaned on the handle, taking the weight off her arthritic hips and giving herself over to the pure joy of song. She let the music lift and carry her voice, putting a power behind it that she hadn't thought her old lungs could still manage.
She was a little disappointed when the musician walked — or rather, limped — out of the woods and turned out be a hobo in a patched jacket, with a faded canvas knapsack slung over his shoulder. Lowering what looked like a homemade flute from his lips, he said, "You sing beautifully."
Evie gripped the hoe. Her shotgun was back in the house. "If you come to rob me, I got nothing to take. If you want a bed and a hot meal, I got that."
His smile was crooked and tired, but the way that it brightened his dirty, bruised face made Evie think of the sun coming out from behind the rain clouds early that morning. "Yeah, that'd be great."
She offered to take the pack from him, but he looked at her arthritis-gnarled body and shook his head, even though she could tell it was really hurting him to walk — one crippled body knows another. Instead she led him up the little path to the cabin door, lined with rocks from the creek and flowers that she'd transplanted from the woods. He gazed curiously at everything. Most people, Evie had noticed, looked at things without really seeing them. But this guy, there was a sharpness in his eyes. It made her think of her youngest nephew, a mechanic over the county line, who had this way of looking at the world like he wanted to know how everything came apart and went back together.
Thinking about that made her realize that she'd never asked the stranger's name. It wasn't often she had company, and usually it was people from the tribe or the town that she'd known all their lives. "I'm Evelyn Joseph. Folks call me Evie."
There was only one chair in the cabin, piled high with cushions beside the wood stove. The other chair, the company chair, she'd started using last winter to store seedling sets by the window, and it just turned into a workbench without really meaning to. Right now it had the pieces of the old well pump that her mechanic nephew had promised to fix for her, all spread out and waiting for the next time he came up to visit. Paul hesitated in the doorway until Evie gestured to the chair, and then he sank down gratefully and lowered his knapsack on the floor beside him.
His sharp eyes continued to catalogue everything in the cabin while Evie stirred up the fire to heat coffee and last night's pot of beans. She didn't care if he thought less of her for the smallness of the place; it wasn't much, but it was hers, and she kept it neat. The rough wooden shelves were decorated with things her sister's kids had sent her from different parts of the country. Knowing that she liked music, Deanna Youngmen down Flagstaff way had sent back quite a number of little bronze statues of that Hopi flute-player with the hunchback; he had a funny name and Evie could never remember it.
Paul's roving eyes stopped on these. "Oh, hey," he said. "Kokopelli."
Yeah, that was the name. Evie blushed a little, because some of those statues weren't exactly decent, and here she had a man in the house. "My niece, she sent 'em," Evie said defensively.
"No, no, I like them." His smile wasn't condescending, but it had a humorous edge, sarcasm turned inward.
Evie shook her head as she dished up beans and flatbread onto a tin plate. "Always felt bad for the poor little thing, with that hump back and all."
"Oh, that's not a hump on his back," Paul said, leaning forward to take the plate and then wincing as his weight shifted on his hip. "He's a peddler. It's a pack."
Evie watched him dig in like he hadn't eaten in days. She noticed how he leaned forward as he ate, favoring his side. "You want me to look at that for you?"
"I'll be all right," he protested through a mouthful of beans.
She snorted and fetched her pestle, along with the burdock leaves she'd picked earlier, and some of the other herbs curing by the stove. "Paul, I've done lived with arthritis more years than you been alive. I know hurtin' when I see it."
With a shrug and a smile, he laid aside the plate and leaned over to hike up his jacket and pull down the edge of the military fatigue pants he wore. "You sure you're not trying to steal my virtue?" he teased.
Her bark of laughter turned into a hiss at the sight of the ugly purple bruise, splashing like a birthmark over the smooth bronze skin of his hip and up across his ribs. "Lord, boy, what did you do to yourself?"
"Car hit me. Last night. Driving fast, too fast for the rain."
Evie shook her head as she laid on the poultice. "Probably one of the Bauer boys down in the valley. Got no sense, that bunch. You report it?"
He shook his head. "Didn't catch the plates, and besides, it was dark and rainy, and I was in the road."
"Still no excuse if they drove on and left you there. I'll have a set-down with Ruthie Bauer about those hoodlums of hers, next time I'm down to her store."
"Now that might be a good idea. Ah!"
"Don't fuss." She spread the poultice with firm hands, examining him as she did so. She'd thought him young, but up close she wasn't so sure. His face was smooth and beardless, but a network of fine lines laced his eyes and mouth. He wasn't local; there were no Kellys round these parts, at least none she knew about.
Once she was done with the doctoring, she made him a cup of tea and wasn't surprised to soon see him nodding. Pulling a quilt over his lap, she went back out to work in her garden.
Paul Kelly slept the day through, waking up that evening to join her for dinner and use the outhouse before falling asleep again. Evie laid the shotgun pointedly beside the bed and slept with a hand on it. No matter what her sister's kids said about her, she wasn't a fool. But he didn't wake in the night, though he twitched often in his sleep, shivering in the grip of unknown dreams. He was still asleep when she went out to feed the chickens, stirring only when she came back in to mix up the morning porridge.
"I'll make another batch of poultice for your side."
Paul shook his head. "No, I appreciate it, but I'll be getting on the road. I'm feeling a lot better."
Evie couldn't help laughing at the stubbornness of youth. "Son, from what I seen of your side, it'll be a week or more before you can do more than hobble around like me."
"I heal fast," was all he said, and indeed, as he bent to retrieve his knapsack from the floor, there was hardly a hint of stiffness. He straightened, slinging it over his shoulder, and looked at her. "I usually pay my supper with a song. And I'd like to hear you sing again."
Evie laughed, feeling her cheeks flame. "I'm just a silly old woman what loves to sing to herself."
"There's nothing silly about music, Evie ... and believe me, you're not old." With that, he unwrapped his flute and began to play. The tune was familiar, a very old tribal song that she recognized from her childhood, but as Paul played it, he added his own trills and runs, creating something that — like Paul himself — was both new and old, familiar and not. Evie felt her foot begin to move, swaying to the music.
Paul took the flute from his lips, and smiled his slightly crooked, heartbreakingly beautiful smile. "Now you join in," he said, and began to play a song that she immediately realized was one of the original ones she'd been singing this morning. How could he remember that, from only hearing it once? She couldn't help humming to it, then singing quietly, and by the time he slid smoothly into another familiar song, she was singing along at full volume.
For minutes or hours, he played and she sang, until she broke off in a coughing fit and poured herself a pewter mug of water from the pitcher by the door. "These lungs ain't had such a workout in years," she said, laughing.
"And I haven't had such a singing partner in years. Many years." Paul looked down at the flute in his hands, then reached across the space between them and pressed it into her palm.
Evie looked at him in surprise. He nodded to the flute. "Try it. See how it fits you."
Cautiously, she placed it to her lips. As a girl she'd made little willow flutes and played with her brothers' tinwhistles, and her fingers still knew how to find the holes. Her first notes were wavering and unsure, but as she gained a feel for it, she was able to pick out one of the tunes she'd been singing.
"I knew you'd have a feel for it," Paul said.
Evie looked down at the flute in her hand. It was so light she could barely feel it, and painted with elaborate designs. "This ain't one of them magic flutes, is it? What the devil uses to make you dance, and all?"
Paul laughed. "So far as I know, there is no such thing as a magic musical instrument. No cursed fiddles, no mystical flutes. All the magic, or lack thereof, is in the person using it." He gestured at the flute. "It's old, but not the first one I've owned, and not the last, I'm sure."
Still she was suspicious. "All I did was give you a meal; I woulda done that for any folks that needed it."
Again the startling smile, crinkling the skin around his eyes. "Then take care of it for me? It's bound to get broken, with all my traveling about; it's a miracle it wasn't smashed when the car hit me. I would like to think it's safely in good hands."
Evie returned the smile, wishing briefly that she could be forty years younger. But this type never settled down, and she knew it. "Now, that I'll do."
She walked him out and showed him the path to town. He still limped a little, but she could see that the swing was back in his step, and that he ached to be moving again.
"You'll come back for this, now," she scolded, shaking the flute at him. "Else my nieces and nephews will fight for it, and it'll end up in an attic somewhere."
"Count on it, honored mother." He adjusted the pack on his back, and strolled into the dew-damp woods, with a lazy-looking but deceptively swift stride that quickly took him out of sight.
Evie looked after him until he'd vanished, then held the flute up to the sun, examining the painted designs. She was surprised to see that the most common of them was the little dancing flute player, Kokopelli.
"Well," she said to herself, "that's how he knew the name, then."
The garden needing hoeing, the roof needed mending and a dozen other things about the cabin wanted work, but the sun was warm and it couldn't hurt to take a few moments for herself. Sitting on a wood-block in the yard, Evie picked out tunes in the flute's sweet voice, and lost herself in the music of the past.
Layla Lawlor a 30-year-old newspaper graphic designer and independent comics artist. She lives in Fox, Alaska, with her husband, two dogs, and a rather annoying cat.
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