The Bone Flute
by Carolyn Lee Boyd
Like a womb readying itself to give birth, the cave opened. Victoria grabbed a tree to steady herself on the shaking Earth, the rocks tumbling away to reveal a small aperture near the ground. She stepped off the hiking path to peer in, drawn by the gaze of the mountain’s newly revealed eye. Once her eyes became accustomed to the blackness, she travelled deep inside, mesmerized by the beasts painted on the walls seeming to move in her phone flashlight’s roving yellow beam.
She stumbled over a pile of bones then fell, grasping an object that came into her hand as she caught herself. It was hollow, a bird’s bone, with holes in the top and one end carved with swirls and lines. She shook the dirt from inside the flute, for she realized that’s what it was, pressed it to her mouth and blew. She heard only a muffled gasp. She cleared more dirt then focused her breath until the flute sang one low, clear note.
But what about the human bones surrounding her? She was not frightened, but rather comforted, as if she had discovered a lost sister or mother. It did not occur to her that the bones were not female. A few ornaments were scattered among them, but the body had not been laid out ceremoniously. This woman had simply laid down and died, Victoria thought.
When it was time to go, Victoria wrapped the flute in a crimson scarf hand-woven for her by her sister and tucked it into her backpack. She placed loose boulders across the mountain’s opening to hide it. She was not sure if the woman within would have wanted to become a spectacle for archeologists and the media.
The flute lay wrapped in its shroud for three months before Victoria picked it up again. Her faith in her intuition that she was meant to play this invaluable relic had left her the moment she stepped out of the cave. Finally, one searing summer evening when the city was quiet, as if waiting for her to find her courage, she gingerly took the flute off the shelf. If the woman in the cave had wanted her to find the flute, what did she want Victoria to play?
Rose was named for the flower her mother loved most. But, like its blooms, she was silent, her larynx injured by a fall when she was an infant. Her favorite place was a room deep inside one of the caves near her family’s winter home. Some thought the cave, like Rose, was voiceless, but if you listened closely, as she did, you heard the rocks tumbling in some hidden room far away, the drip of water from a spring just below, a mouse scuttling into a tiny fissure.
When Rose was thirteen, she found the carcass of a vulture in her room. One of the bones had a series of holes that had been gnawed by hungry bears. Rose wondered if perhaps some marrow was left inside, so she brought the bone to her mouth and sucked, but it was empty. She blew out in frustration and was surprised to hear a breathy tone.
All through the next day and night she taught herself to make a song by covering the holes at first slowly and hesitatingly, then faster and more smoothly. The sun appeared on the horizon just as she walked out of the cave. The sunrise and her song both made her feel the same, as if her heart were expanding and might soon break open. She was stunned. Could she really be like the Goddess who created the cycle of time each day and gave humans joy at the sight of it?
She taught herself to compose and remember songs that brought her back to quiet mornings with her mother gathering berries and their sweet taste of them, her salty sorrow when she saw the returning hunters carrying her brother’s broken body, and the sanctuary of her family’s fire when the snow covered the herd’s tracks outside.
She taught the women of her family to make the flute’s magic. Her daughters grew up playing their own flutes and then began teaching women outside their small community. Soon women from even far away were making and playing flutes. They helped the Goddess play the day into being each morning, healed the sick, showed the dying the way home to their ancestors, and made the rain come.
Before, the sun and stars and moon, the great beasts, the storms and rains all had power, but the humans cowered before them all, weak and hungry. Now the women knew that the Great Goddess was not jealous of her power, but wanted the women to have some of it for themselves also. The magic of women was born.
One day Rose knew she would soon die. She wanted her songs, especially the dawn song, to be remembered in case all those who now played them passed from life and the knowledge of the divine voice within each of them faded. She brought her pot of ochre to her favorite room in the cave and decided that she must paint the music so that when the women of her family found her, they would always know how to play her song.
When she finished, she laid down on the cave’s floor and breathed her last, still holding the flute. Her family never found her body and time covered up the cave entrance. Rose became silent again.
Victoria stared at photos she had taken of the paintings on the wall above the bones, the only possible clue to how the flute had been played. Her eyes came to rest on a picture of people dancing in a circle, women, men, and children. Some were twice as tall as others or were repeated. The woman might not have ordered everything in a line as we do, Victoria reasoned. To her, perhaps the voices of women, men, and children would simply be different, and a song might not start in one place and end in another, but be sung over and over till it was time to stop.
Victoria chose the tallest female figure as perhaps a mid-range note that would be held longer than the others, then moved from figure to figure, varying the tone based on whether the figure was a woman, man, or child, and the length by the figure’s size. She thought that the woman would most likely move the song around the circle clockwise, the same direction as the sun. After several rounds, her playing was recognizable as a tune.
But what to do now? Victoria pondered as she walked home through a village between the mountain and her apartment. She stopped in front of a small temple, once the center of the spiritual life of the area and still used by some, but not many. She had never paid much attention to it, but now she noticed that the goddess carved above the door was holding a small flute. She read the inscription inside.
The Goddess’ music made the dawn return each morning until she had mysteriously disappeared, taking her flute with her, and from that moment chaos and trauma, injustice and evil, had entered the world, it said. The priestesses who had attended her, and all women, had been blamed for making the Goddess so angry that she abandoned the world.
Victoria knew that this story, whose origin lay in the cave woman’s disappearance, had been used as an excuse to batter and berate generations of the cave woman’s descendants. No one believed the old story anymore, but women were still blamed for all ills all the same. One lone priest inside was singing an ancient chant to the Goddess, beseeching her to return. It was garbled, but clearly the same tune Victoria had just taught herself on the flute from the wall paintings.
As Victoria walked away from the temple, she brushed past a young woman humming exactly the same tune. She passed by a store blasting the latest hits and she heard the tune again. Over the years she heard it many times, in sacred music by mystics like Hildegard of Bingen, in folk ballads and ancient children’s songs, in orchestral concertos and operatic arias. When Victoria heard the tune, her soul danced, knowing that a sacred voice within her had been awakened, that the Goddess did not need to be begged to return.
The women still knew their stolen song, but they had forgotten what it meant. The world was so much vaster and so much more noisy than it had been tens of thousands of years before. Women were so burdened with work and the loss of their rights that they seemed to have no time for singing. Victoria wrapped the flute in the red scarf and waited for the right time to play it again so everyone could hear.
That time never came, and decades later, it was Victoria’s turn to learn that she would not live out the summer. There was no more time to wait. She unwrapped the flute and found that, in the warmth and humidity of her home instead of the dry cold of the cave, it had disintegrated into a handful of bits of bone and was again as silent as the voice of the Goddess had become within the world of humans.
Downstairs she heard Helen, her neighbor, let herself into her house and begin making breakfast as she did each day before leaving for work now that Victoria was too ill to care for herself. Helen hummed a folk version of the song as she set up the coffeemaker. After breakfast Victoria used her walker to go down to the park where she sat on a bench and passed away, the flute’s remains in her hand.
As her body slumped on the bench, Victoria’s soul recognized the soul of Rose, who stood beside her. “Listen, truly listen,” Rose said as she took Victoria’s hand. Victoria closed her eyes and, for the first time, heard the everyday lives of women going on around her, just as Rose had heard the music of the cave so long ago. Women walked by deep in conversation, truly understanding what the other was saying about her deepest fears and hopes. Young girls wearing “the future is female” t-shirts jogged by, giggling to each other. A mother sang a lullaby to her infant daughter that she, in turn, would sing to her own child. These all transcended their mundane sounds to become, to Victoria and Roses’s ears, beautiful melodies that harmonized and filled the park with a symphony of women’s song.
Victoria remembered her sister, spinning and weaving for hours to make the red scarf, and Helen, making sure everyday that she was fed, and all the other women who had made Victoria’s life rich, deep, and sweet. All of these actions became melodies that meandered in and out of the music of the cosmos she was now hearing.
Then Victoria knew. The flute did not give women the means to hear the voice of the Goddess within. The women were the voice of the Goddess themselves in all they said and did that affirmed the sacredness of one another. The Goddess who cares for each being through all other beings in the universe was singing through every kind word and action, and she would keep singing through all the tragedies, inhumanity, and trials women faced the world over until all women heard their own sacredness in the notes.
Victoria’s soul found her way back to the room where Rose’s bones still lay. She sat down next to Rose with the shattered flute in her lap and began singing, knowing that no second birth of the voice of the Goddess was needed. Her voice and Rose’s harmonized with the chorus of voices coming from all around them, from all directions, and from past and future, and they waited for all the women to finally remember, note by note, the song that was their gift from the Goddess.
Latest posts by Carolyn Lee Boyd (see all)
- The Bone Flute - 7th August 2018
- Review: “The World Is Your Oracle: Divinatory Practices for Tapping Your Inner Wisdom and Getting the Answers You Need”, by Nancy Vedder-Shults - 18th November 2017
- “Witches and Pagans”, by Max Dashu - 21st April 2017