When I was seven or eight years old, our teacher in Biology told us: “Tomorrow night The Queen for one Night will open her flowers.” I was fascinated; even I did not know what The Queen for one Night was. It was a big flower, was all we were told. Or perhaps, this was all I heard.
In my imagination, I personified her, immediately. I saw her stand in front of me, slightly elevated; I had to look up to her. Small people always have to look up. Tall and slim she was, with long fair hair. Gracious, distant and a bit too earnest, just the way queens are in fairy tales, a true Empress.
She wore a long smooth robe, with a few round folds in the skirt. The top was tight with long sleeves. The silky fabric was of light green colour. The seams and the cutout, which reached from the tip of one shoulder to the other, were embroidered with dark green lace.
Sprinkled all over the robe was an uncountable number of buds. In the dark of the night, lit only by the scarce glow of the stars, there she stood in her pride and nobleness. As in dance, enchanting, she slowly lifted her outstretched arms forward, then up, and, at the same time, the moon rose at her fingertips.
Heavenly melodies sounded, pulling, chirruping. A flickering tremble ran through her body. A delicate sprinkling mist sprayed by little silver stars. The buds on her dress began to open. The sound of trickling water arose, interwoven by many harmonies, more and more, louder and louder and turned into the hissing and crashing crescendo of wild whirling water.
There was only her and me. Her aura embraced me, protecting, providing safety. I was not afraid. She shared her strength with me, and enveloped me with her wisdom; I could trust and rely on her. She was my Queen.
The next day passed by like a blur, nothing was of importance. Time passed unnoticed. Tonight, I would see her again. I was engulfed by an unknown desire. The point in time to leave for the tram approached like a torch’s flickering flame of a runner in the dark.
At another time, it would have been an exciting experience on its own, to be still up long after sunset, the time of the grown-ups, but tonight, I was unaware of all this.
We had gathered at the tram stop nearest to the school. Approaching out of the dark with its familiar rumble, now, the tram was a monster with its fearsome eye piercing a gleaming shaft of light into the night. It was comforting to see the driver’s smile and to hear his jovial “Boys, what are you up this late at night?”
There benches along the windows, and I kneeled on one to look out of the window. The tram drove through the city centre. The windows of the stores, the colourful lights of advertisements, everything melted together into swirling fountains of light, sound and movement.
Half dreaming, I had stepped through the secret gate into a mysterious world. Like bewitched shadow-beings, slowly moving along, in front of the brightly illuminated displays of the stores I saw the black silhouettes of the grown-ups promenading on their evening stroll.
Leaving behind the gleaming city, we arrived at the botanical gardens. The yellow light of the gas lanterns scarcely lit up the path, the small pebbles crunched under our shoes.
There, hidden in the dark, was the tall greenhouse, a bulging dome of glass carried by ornamented cast iron pillars. Some of the glass panels reflected the stars of the sky, creating an illusive continuation of itself, some were black. The crowns of the old maple trees cast a spooky shadow pattern across all.
“This is a tropical greenhouse,” somebody explained to us. I had no idea what this could mean. A mysterious glow coming from inside caught my attention. It lit up a particular area. I entered through a double door.
Slightly shocked I was when unfamiliar, sickly warm dampness touched me with its sweet smell of mould, decay and dark soil. Stunned, I stood there, gagged, frightened to breathe. Impatient schoolmates pushed me along. This made me gasp. I had been in another world, for a while.
Over meandering, narrow tracks, through overhanging branches, touched by glittering dew drops on large leaves, and the sound of trickling water, we approached the lit up area.
Then I stood in front of her, startled and helpless at the same time: an enormous cactus, spotted brown and green, over four metres high with many branches and twigs, covered with hundreds of bright green ball-shaped buds; some had partially sprung open with tips of white glistening petals sticking out.
My amazement grabbed my mind; my powerful imagination did not allow me to recognise the real image.
After all children had arrived, the lights were turned off.
The cold, pale white light of the moon shone down, lighting up an unreal landscape. My eyes followed the beam up, some glass panels reflected like silver mirrors hovering in free space.
Forlorn, I stood there, intensely staring into the fathomless grey; the plant hardly recognisable in front of the dark background. My heartbeat tremored my throat. Even my most talkative classmates quietened down. The silence intensified unexpectedly loud a confusing tune of trickling water arriving from everywhere. In between, I heard the pulsing rush of blood in my ears.
Suddenly it began. Unexpected, almost instantaneously some early blossoms sprung opened, and then, like the cascades of a firework the starry white spread over the entire plant. Silver white, glistening lancet-shaped petals, spreading out, glassy starlets.
Submerged in this picture she appeared, leaving the veils of darkness behind, my Queen stepped forth. Her image overlaid the shape of the plant, the arrangement of flowers matching her dress, radiant and star-like.
Her face expressed a subtle gesture of recognition; the ribbon of our connection shaped and euphoria widened all my sensations. Reunited, this strength and pride aroused a feeling of being able to achieve anything, even the impossible.
Somebody pushed me carelessly, brutally. “Hey, are you dreaming?” Silly, neighing laughter. Time had passed unnoticed, we had to go home.
An episode that was long forgotten.
Years later when I was a student…
The world had shrunk, France, Spain, Italy were just around the next street corner. During summer holidays, I often travelled to Spain; I did feel best there. I had learnt a little Spanish, enough to order food and drink, ask for a destination, say hello in different ways and strike a small conversation.
One night during my first trip, I finished the day in a bodega. The smell of varnished wine barrels, the spills of red wine and the Muscatel, air-dried bacon… cujone and chorizos… the garlic sausage, the smell of tapas flambé and singing of flamenco to a guitar, through all this, I heard the words: “Reyna de una noche” Immediately I knew, what sort of a night this was, tonight.
Outside, the gas lamps radiated yellow cones of light penetrating the darkness and make the domes of the cobblestones glisten, moistened by the evening dew. Some people had assembled already. I followed them outside the village.
The sandy path was only scarcely lit by the stars. I had to be careful not to stumble all the time; my straw sandals offered no protection to my toes against the attack of the occasional rock.
Only now and then I notice the rising of a strange tension, an anticipation of meeting a forgotten encounter. The nightly smell of the sandy ground and bated whispering voices lulled me in comfort. We arrived at a large cactus shrub, which covered the whole wind‑protected side of a hill, still facing the sea. It was almost entirely dark; all were waiting.
The rushing of the surf made me turn around. At this moment, the squashed red disc of the moon rose above the horizon. Within less than a minute the entire silver disc had ascended. Reflected and scared by the waves, a widening band of light darted towards me, reaching from the far edge of the world for the dark glistening sand at my feet.
The moist beach reflected the warped tethered disk of the moon. Waves with pointed, undulated white crowns of foam rolled towards me. Absorbed by this play, I hardly noticed the moon had climbed above the horizon for quite a bit.
The rising sound of many hushed voices called me to turn. Several flowers had opened already. Like a lofty veil, waving as if thrown by a wizard across the hillside, hundreds of blossoms sprung open in the moonlight, gleaming silver-white flowers.
Sounds intensified. The chirping of the cicadas rose in waves, the hissing of the waves dashing at the beach interwoven with the rushing of the waves of the sea.
Sound and sight recalled memories. Then they had been imagination, this time they were real. Unexpected waves of emotions touched me. A longing for the dream-world of my childhood flooded my senses, calling for my light world, free of sorrow, where I had been free as a bird.
I felt a swell rising, I shook, and my throat tightened. For a long time, I had not cried. The pressure in my eyes increased, my face was burning hot. Released with a deep sigh, hesitantly, tears ran down my cheeks edging their path, like a brooklet after a long drought searching, following the river bed.
They collected at the tip of my chin, and it tickled. Hardly noticing, I licked my lips, wetted by tears, they tasted salty. I pulled up my runny nose and wiped it with my forearm like a boy. I grinned, the spell was broken.
No one should notice what had happened to me. But not to worry, the people around me were far too much occupied with themselves, taken by the offered play.
Timidly, the green Queen unveiled from the depth of my memories, and as she shaped, so did our relationship. What had happened to her supporting, strength-giving aura? Were they only a child’s dreams. When did she leave me?
Time passed unnoticeably. The sound of bumping steps told me: it was time to leave.
Silently we walked back. At the village square sounded a few “Buenas noches”. Lying on my bed, I remained awake still for a long time. Now, the veil of flowers was the starry sky framed by the window opening. The sound of the shore I could hear as a distant hum, and I was sliding into sleep, embraced by the experience.
Next morning, I returned to the hill with expecting curiosity. Often I had walked passed there but never had I noticed anything remarkable, which would attract my attention. Certainly no Reyna de una Noche.
I found a spread out cactus bush covered with white dust. At many places, it was burnt brown and dried out from the scorching sun. Yellow scars everywhere. The sandy ground was covered with countless patchy brown petals, curled up and shrivelled. The sweet smell of early decay saturated the still morning air.
Where was my Queen? Attraction and rejection, sorrow and reverence, denial and pride, shame and longing overwhelmed me with dichotomy. I felt rising anger. How can such a false image dare to cause such strong emotions?
Confused and somewhat light-headed, I looked for a flat rock near the stem of a shadow-casting cork oak. Leaning back at the gnarly stem I kept looking at the cactus bush. It was there like any other day before.
Time moved on. The cool of the morning retracted from the heat of noon. Several women passed me by with their donkeys. I received a friendly, drawn-out “buenas”. Near the cactus, they paused briefly and looked at it silently. Men stopped, too. What is the meaning of this cactus to these people? Were we sharing a dream?
At this moment came the thought: “What was so bad about this experience? Nothing at all. Did it not reconnect me with an ability I had forgotten? To be happy, by myself, coming out of myself. There are wisdom and strength.”
The cactus bush was still over there, unchanged; but I had changed. Now, I could look at it without restraint and say thank you. With the uplifting feeling of freedom, I got up and ambled along the narrow, winding path down to the beach.