Night-blooming Cereus

by Julia Perry

           There are few things more devoted than the gardener is to the night-blooming cereus. The jungle cactus goes by many names: Christ in the Manger, Bethlehem Lily, Cactus Orchid. But his favorite is Queen of the Night, the same name as the notoriously brutal aria from Mozart’s The Magic Flute. She only blooms once a year, for a single night -- a little life and death flashing in a fraction of a cosmic second. When her buds are closed, she seems almost an alien thing; the petals twining themselves slyly around one another, suspended from the thick nape of its stalk, like some unearthly maw, poised to open and swallow something whole. Only under the summer moonlight, she unfurls her delicate bone-colored petals, waxing full like her lunar sister, and waning before sunrise. Her transient beauty is mortal and divine all at once, holding the promise of this brief yearly reincarnation. If the gardener is steadfast in his worship, he might coax her to return next year.

           My father, the historian, and the complicated man I sometimes struggle to remember was the gardener who shepherded this strange efflorescence each year, standing over the clay pots on the kitchen counter. I learned more about him by watching him perform this ritual than through almost anything else. His face was craggy and marked with deep valleys from years of poring over books for his history classes, his hands stiff from arthritis. The middle and ring finger on his right hand had always stuck together like twins, ever since some climbing accident when he was a child. In the end, his withering hands were still agile enough to play a sonata by Schubert, to toss pasta with heavy crimson sauce in a cast iron pan, to bring plants back from the dead. The same hands that rescued temperamental orchids have also pulled the triggers of pistols on a military base in the Philippines, where native teak and heliotrope were trampled on by unwelcome feet and languished in the smoke of American imperialism. Now, those hands pull nothing at all: they have decayed to ashes in the ground. They might have already become fertilizer for the calla lilies that some might leave on the crisp graveyard grass.

 

           Years later, I held a fingernail-sized tab of blotter paper soaked in LSD on the back of my tongue and waited for it to work its delayed wonders. It was Friday the 13th and my birthday, and I was celebrating this self-centered holiday with my lover and two friends who were also lovers, on the fringe of what would be our extended confinement together. Panic and disease were invisible specters floating on the cold early spring air in New York City, and we were all looking for a way out -- not from the city, but from the limbo of our bodies.

 

The walls began to inhale as I sat in the tiny apartment, preparing for the thrill of an uphill roller-coaster as I rode the peak of the high. My widening black irises stared into the single yellow light bulb as it began to oscillate into obscure sequences -- a kaleidoscope of fire and burning inkblots of liquid color. In the seemingly endless hours that followed, I felt a series of never-ending contradictions. I saw myself dying and sliding through a tunnel to be born again, tapping into the amniotic fluid of this primitive and evolved state. I felt my sense of individuality dissolve, and in its place, a wild sense of oneness with the leviathan of all living creatures, all celestial bodies, all energies from the cosmos to the atoms in my fingertips. The temporary vessel of my body seemed so far away as my mind raced in loop after loop, only slowing to pass the baton each time its legs tired before the next lap.

 

           I have heard that when we come close enough to our dying, the brain’s pineal gland releases a chemical with the same properties as ayahuasca -- the sacred elixir made from sections of a great wooden snaking vine, and the leaves of chacruna, the waxy shrub which holds the “spirit molecule,” also known as DMT. Whether this is irrefutably true or not (scientists, as always, have some disagreements), what we do know is that sometimes, when the heart stops beating and the brain seems to stop firing its neurons, and when all signs indicate our understanding of death (do we really know?) the consciousness continues on. Some people awaken from this strange life after life to tell stories of profound, newborn awareness. They escaped the constraints of space and time, and an ineffable feeling of the limitlessness of mind and spiritual unity with the universe, as all-consuming as the ocean. Perhaps most terrifying of all, (or comforting), they no longer fear death. Instead, it just becomes a gateway.

 

           I try to imagine what my body will feel like when I am standing at that precipice between The Here and The After. I imagine my chest filling with gold, my heavy skull becoming weightless and lifting into the sky with its own gravitational pull. My hands will become like roots, branching out in millions of directions. When I die, I know the world will not end, my ancestors will still live within me, (body or not). I am made of the same crushed little galaxies as the Queen of the Night, and the same matter as the box in the cemetery in upstate New York where my father’s bones are buried. When he was tending his plants day after day, perhaps that was his own life-affirming ritual, and when he died, perhaps he saw these same little galaxies, felt the same rebirth. Maybe he always knew they were right there, in a tiny gland at the center of his skull.

About the Author

Julia Perry is a public relations account coordinator and freelance copywriter currently based in Brooklyn, New York. She graduated from Boston College in 2019 with a BA in Political Science and a minor in English. In the past, Julia worked as a copy editor at The North Star, and as an editorial intern for Post Road Magazine. Her writing has been published by Boston College’s student-run literary magazines, The Stylus and The Laughing Medusa.