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art by Stephen James Kiniry

A Concert of Flowers

Kate O'Connor is a sometime pilot, dog groomer on off days, and construction worker when all else fails. She is currently living in New York.

The packed concert hall was far from silent. People whispered to their neighbors, fancy clothing rustled, jewelry chimed. In the wings, William Reis waited, the sound of his rapidly thumping heart filling his ears.
A sharp tug on his collar dragged his eyes down. Emily's pale hands, beautiful still though her skin was wrinkled and growing translucent, straightened his lapels. The charcoal gray suit belonged to her second son. It was tight across the middle and a little long in the leg but he had forgotten that he would need concert attire until the last minute.
"I'll be in the front row. Don't puke." She wrinkled her nose at him and shoved him gently towards the stage. He clutched the ring in his pocket, making sure it was still there. He thought about asking her then but she was gone before he could unstick his lips. Stomach fluttering, he walked out to his place at center stage instead.
William watched the house lights go down through the slim inch between the rich red velvet hem of the curtain and the satiny, dark-tinted stage floor. His head spun and he transferred the slender remote between hands, wiping first one sweating palm than the other on his baggy slacks.
With a ponderous creak, the heavy curtain rose and he was momentarily blinded by the spotlights. They hadn't seemed so bright during the lighting test. He blinked stupidly for a long minute before the uncomfortable rustling of the audience broke through his surging panic. He frantically keyed the initial button on the sweat slick remote.
There was a soft hiss as the clear casing of the first stasis jar fell open. The slim-leafed plant anchored in its deep pot trembled as air rushed in. Its single bud exploded into bloom even before the casing had touched the table and a note, high, clear, perfectly pure rang through the dark. It brought tears to William's eyes. Almost as good as hearing it for the first time.
The equipment on his back was heavy and getting heavier by the hour. He pushed up the sleeves of his shirt again, pulling the sweaty garment away from his chest and flapping it a few times. Surveying was a solitary job. One day this field or one like it would be the site of the new spaceport. Ships would come and shops would spring up, followed by restaurants, businesses, and apartments. One day it would be a bustling city.
Now it was just one more muddy meadow to slog through on one more far-flung colonial world. The climate was pleasantly temperate but there was an odd purplish cast to most of the vegetation. A few scrubby trees were growing to the south, barely more than bushes twisting up through the waist-high, mauve-spotted grass. Lumpy amber clouds were building in the distance, threatening to force their way over the low, rounded mountain range.
William stopped on a slight rise, shrugging off the shoulder straps and easing his equipment down. He fumbled through setting it up, hurrying a bit as he tried to keep half an eye on the weather. Tulandra was his second assignment and his first solo job.
The leg of the theodolite tripod slipped just as William finished calibrating it. Cursing loudly, he kicked at a patch of sturdy, indigo-green plants. Their thick stalks rebounded easily and one of the baseball sized buds burst open, stunning William to silence as a clean note rang through the open field. He had never heard anything like it. Cautious and disbelieving, he nudged another bud with the mud-caked toe of his boot. The plant trembled and the blossom opened, unfurling crimson petals as it added its note to the no-longer-desolate air.
Easing away from center stage, William pushed a couple of buttons. Two tones rang out together, wavering delicately as they adjusted to each other and found balance. As he keyed the next sequence, the sound swelled. William watched as a series of jars in front of him collapsed and the plants within burst into salmon and ruby and violet bloom.
The singing flowers of Tulandra had two notes each. One when their petals opened for the first time, the hollow pistils sucking air all the way to the plant's roots and vibrating the tiny filaments inside the stem. The second came when the stem's integrity was compromised and the stored air rushed out. Each leaf had microscopic protuberances that caught the frequencies emitted by the other flowers. The invisible vibrations would cause the plant to tighten or relax the internal filaments, adjusting them until its note matched the harmonics of the flowers around it.
"They're called harmony lilies, son. They're everywhere this time of the rotation." The farmer's lips twitched as he poked at the bruised, drying samples spread on the heavily stained bar. William bit the inside of his cheek, trying to ignore the smirks and shared looks the watering hole's few occupants were exchanging. Galactic Survey's guidebooks were notoriously incomplete. William didn't know anything about the local flora and fauna beyond what was supposedly edible and what might be poisonous.
"What makes them sing like that?" William pressed on, squinting a bit in the dim light of the dilapidated bar. Being the butt of the joke would be worth it if he could just learn a bit more about the strange plants that had kept him company on his long survey circuit.
"Dunno." The farmer shrugged and turned back to his drink. William scooped up the remains of his carefully collected samples and walked out, leaving his untouched drink sitting on the rough wood of the bar.
"You made an intergalactic call to tell me about flowers? Seriously, Will, this must be costing you at least a week's salary." Emily's disbelief came through the static with perfect clarity.
He huffed in annoyance. Calling her might have been a dumb idea. Her husband hated him--mostly because of how easily Emily talked to him--but she was the only one who might possibly get it. "Look, I know it's silly. It's just…" he broke off, not sure how to put words to his jumbled up feelings.
"It's caught your interest." Emily filled in for him. He could picture her curled up in the faux leather chair in her bedroom, the phone tucked between chin and shoulder while she folded laundry or skimmed through clips on the latest fashions. "Nothing catches your interest. Tramping around all those different planets and all you see is how similar everything is to everything else. Except for this. So now you don't want to leave. That right?"
William grunted an affirmative. It sounded stupid laid out that simply but he couldn't exactly deny it.
"So don't leave." Classic Emily solution.
"No money." William shifted uncomfortably. He didn't like the little thrill of excitement that shot through him when he thought about staying on Tulandra. It was too complicated. There were other things he wanted more. One other thing anyway.
"Hah. You have enough to call me--but I get the drift. So make a few more credits off of Survey and then go back. Better yet, get a degree or something so they have to pay you to go back."
"It's just a plant, Em. Not worth changing my life over."
"Then why are you still talking about it? Besides, you don't like your life anyway. If you like this, even a little bit, it's better than what you have now."
"You might get bored without me." William smiled as he said it. Boredom had been Emily's chief complaint forever.
"I'll have Charlie and the baby to keep me occupied."
"You're pregnant?" And just that simply, his daydreams of earning enough money to come back and sweep her off her feet went out the window. A husband she wasn't quite happy with was one thing, but this meant she would have a family of her own. That was different. "Con-congratulations."
"I'm not naming him after you." She laughed, sounding relaxed and happy.
"You should see it out here, Em. I found a whole field singing all at once. All the flowers were shooting pollen into the air and with the sun shining through, everything sparkled. You've never heard anything like it, like the entire world is trying to tell you something." His chest was tight. He didn't want to talk about her new family.
"Send me pictures. I couldn't stand to be that far from the nearest flushing toilet, especially these days." She was waiting for him to laugh but he couldn't manage.
"I'm going to find a way to stay."
"Good for you. You'll make it work." There was a question at the end. She was wondering what was wrong.
"I'm out of time. Talk to you later sometime. Bye, Em." For once, he didn't tell her he would miss her.
William couldn't see the faces of the audience but he felt their anticipation with each flick of his fingers. He thought he could just hear the rush of gasped breaths and the crinkle of hands clenching programs under the music of his lilies. They wouldn't have seen anything like this before. There had never been something like this. He was the first, the only.
"…and the seeds in the next planting are an outcross with old Terran Lilium amoenum. They should be putting up shoots any day now. The possibilities are really exciting." William trailed off as the politely blank look on Emily's face finally broke through his enthusiasm and registered as the boredom it no doubt signified. "Sorry, Em. Too much of a good thing, huh?"
"No, no. I love hearing about your work." She gave him the smile he had seen her use all too frequently on her second husband before she dropped him. It was the one that meant she had checked out of the conversation almost before it had begun. They had been friends since elementary school. Quite often they knew each other better than either liked to remember.
"It's okay. That's all there is to it, really. How're the kids?" William smothered a sigh as she leapt at the change in topic. Five years working for Survey to earn the money for college, struggling through courses his haphazard early education had left him ill-equipped to deal with, masters, doctorate in alien botany and for what? Twelve greenhouses that were his life. Countless dusty papers published on obscure botany nets. A few equally dusty awards celebrating his "landmark" contributions to the field.
All he had was twenty years of research that made his friends and family wince whenever he mentioned any of it. When it came right down to it, nothing he had ever done made people care about the thing he had built his life around. Even Emily. She was single again. He'd been waiting for that but he just couldn't see her coming back to Tulandra with him and he couldn't stop his research now. It was the only thing he had to take pride in.
The air in William's small greenhouse workshop was moist and warm. He sat perched on the edge of his rickety old chair, humming under his breath to the robust violet lily that was in the process of blooming. The frequency it was emitting didn't change. Not that he had really expected it to. No matter what he had tried, he hadn't managed to find a sound that affected them besides their own. Even recordings didn't work. They only modified their songs for each other.
Something tickled at the back of his brain. Maybe recordings were the problem. If people could just hear them the same way he did….
He wanted people to understand, to see what he saw in the little plants he had devoted his life to. It didn't seem possible. In the entirety of the galaxy a few bits of foliage weren't likely to garner much notice.
But there was something to the idea. Funding and sponsors might take a while to drum up, but if he could be persistent enough, maybe the idea would catch hold. A concert with flowers as the star performers was surely different enough to spark interest. He got to his feet, ignoring the twinge in his back. He had some calls to make.
The phone buzzed. William flipped it over, checking the ID out of habit. There weren't that many people he cared to speak to on a warm spring evening. The little window read: Remmis Entertainment Productions. He dropped the phone and had to lunge after it. A few contributors were waiting to see if he could get real support but were not willing enough to make a go of it without a big-name backer. REP was just about his last hope. Everyone else had said no.
"William Reis speaking." He could have kicked himself for the tremor in his voice.
"Hello, Dr. Reis, this is Sam Hallerman from REP. I'm calling in regards to your proposal." William's heart sank. The tone of voice was all too familiar as Hallerman continued. "It's an interesting idea but we don't think we can find an audience for something so… inanimate."
"It's not like that." William's pulse raced franticly. There had to be something he could say, some way to explain more clearly. He couldn't take hearing 'no' again.
"Thank you for your time, Dr. Reis. Good luck." The man's voice was dismissive and impersonal. It made William's hands clench.
"Wait." William's mind raced. "Why don't I fly some of your guys out here? Let them see what it would really be like. On my dollar. What do you think? You've got nothing to lose." It would break him financially. Intergalactic travel was expensive. Even if he picked up as many teaching gigs as he could get, it wouldn't be enough. He would have to borrow money--money there was no way to pay back if this didn't pay off. He could lose everything.
There was a long silence on the other end of the line and William tried to squash the stray stab of hope running him through. Finally Hallerman came back with the answer. "All right then. But no promises, no contract. Most likely we'll still say no."
Relaxing into the performance, William pushed the button to put the program on automatic and stuck the remote in his jacket pocket. As more and more blossoms burst open, he picked up two pairs of pruning shears that had been lying on the table waiting for him. The sharp edges glinted in the harsh lighting.
He walked forward to the front table. His heart had finally steadied. They sounded so beautiful, better than he had imagined. The flowers in front of him were silent now. On average a note lasted 4.16 minutes; the longest he had measured had been 7.83 minutes. That one had been an old plant with an extensive root system.
The pack on his back had gotten lighter over the long years he had walked these fields. Now all it carried was a carefully tuned frequency meter and a spade. He towed a hovercart of empty stasis jars behind him. Four years into his research, William had discovered that the harmony lilies emitted an inaudible hum just before the buds popped. That discovery hadn't come to much back then but it made his plan for collecting concert specimens easier.
The timing had to be flawless. For the performance to work, they had to be placed in stasis just moments before they bloomed. The spring breeze was cool against his forehead. He'd had hair to cover that once. Sitting stiffly down in the purple grass, he pulled out his tools. Transplanted lilies were his best bet. The cultivated ones just didn't have as pure a tone.
There was a collective intake of breath from the crowd as William neatly severed the first bloom. The blush pink flower dropped sideways, catching on the edge of the table and spinning like an open umbrella towards the floor. Its death note was scarcely noticeable under the vivid harmony of its brothers. The dying resonance was always softer, sighing and hollow.
The sound triggered the release of pollen in any living harmony lily that "heard" it. Like most everything else, their unique characteristics were adapted towards furthering the species. The cascade of minute particles sparkled as they drifted slowly towards the stage floor. William smiled. It looked almost like one of his fields back on Tulandra.
William walked through the storage compartment, scanning each case with his handheld. Each flower had been packed carefully in individual stasis jars, numbered and labeled. His stomach clenched each time he made his twice-daily rounds. Too many cracked jars, an unfortunate program malfunction and it would be over before it began.
The ship was ninety-three days out of Tulandra. Just five more days until they landed on Remmis. Sometimes William wondered if his heart would survive the trip. Every shift and jolt had him frantic. It had taken so very long to bring his concert together. If it didn't work, he would be left with nothing.
William gestured with his shears and the assistants waiting in the wings emerged. Each moved to a section of flowers bearing shears of her own. In carefully choreographed accord, they began trimming blossoms. Gradually the tone of the concert changed as the number of dying notes overcame those still blooming.
At long last only one jar remained unopened. It sat on a pedestal at center stage. Behind the crystalline glass, the graceful plant rested in frozen perfection. William had studied them all and picked this one specifically.
It was moderately sized, perhaps two feet in height from dirt to crown, but full and symmetrical. Each blade-shaped leaf glowed with health, emerald in the center darkening to purple-black at the tips. Its single bud stood proudly on its thick stalk. As the last dying notes from the other flowers faded, William put his finger on the jar's manual release. His breath came hard. This was it. The final moment.
He pressed the button and the glass fell away. The bud hesitated for a moment, deep violet outer petals clinging to each other before springing triumphantly apart. As the pearl pale center caught the light, William held his breath. The translucent call sang out for an eighth of a beat before he clipped the radiant fuchsia blossom. As it fell, the dying note merged, shifted, harmonized with its own echo. For a brief second it was rapture.
Silence reigned in the theater. William stood deflated and exhausted. It hadn't worked. He would go back to his greenhouses a failure. His work would fade away when he did, ghosting around in botany texts to be poked through by other unknown specialists, showing up in Galactic Survey's guidebook--inedible, non-poisonous species. He couldn't even find Emily with the blazing lights in his face. He had wanted so badly for her to see.
Someone began clapping. The sound grew until it was a roar. William raised his head in unbelieving amazement. The cheers swelled still louder. He stumbled forward, raising his wet face to the shining spotlight. Buoyed on his dawning ecstasy, he took his bow, fallen blossoms glistening bright and fresh on the dark wood of the stage.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, October 7th, 2011

Author Comments

Writing is a recent thing for me and this story came as something of a surprise. I sat down to work on a piece about an isolated colony world but singing flowers came out instead. Once I'd thought of it, I couldn't let it go. I have always been fascinated by the science behind things that seem like magic and the unexpected paths life can take. For me, this story was a reflection of both.

- Kate O'Connor
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