In this chapter, Natalie Wendy learns to play a flute that she found after confronting a greedy man who used the flute to summon a tornado.

 

 

Wendy Learns the Flute

 

Wendy flew to her garden and hovered above it to make sure nobody was within earshot. Then she landed, sat down next to the looking pool, and pulled the silver flute from her purse. It's in good shape for having been through a tornado, she thought. But how do I play it?

The truth was she had never seen a flute before, and only knew of them from rumor; she certainly did not know how to play. She pressed her lips to the hole at the end and blew. No sound. She hummed into the hole. She made a humming sound, but no sound. So she kissed her lips to the other end. Still no sound. She put her fingers over the holes, holding the flute in her left hand. Nothing. She tried it in her right hand. There was the hint of a sound, like the sound of wind blowing through a crack in the window. Good, she thought: that's where I start.

But after a few hours of blowing and fingering the flute, she realized she needed a teacher.

Wendy knew that some of the boys in town could play the lyre, the drum, the violin, and other instruments. They played during the community dances, and sometimes she would hum those tunes for weeks afterwards. So while three boys were practicing in an orchard, she walked up and before they could quite finish she said loudly:

"Who taught you?"

They looked at each other.

"What?" asked the freckled fat boy, setting down his drum.

She looked at the skinny buck-toothed boy who was still playing the lyre. He stopped.

"Who taught you?"

"My older brother, before he went away, taught me the drums. His father taught him the lyre. John's father taught him the xylophone."

"Do any of them play the flute?" she asked.

"Only the beekeeper knows how to play the flute," said the lyre boy, "But he won't teach you anything. So it's true what they say? That you found a silver flute?"

"Where does this beekeeper live?"

"Nobody knows where he lives," said the boy. "We wouldn't even know he was still alive if he didn't occasionally hazard into town to sell some honey. But he's rampant rude, and can't stand children neither. But show us the flute. Here, you can hold my lyre while I try it out. I can show you the basics at least, I know that much."

"No, thank you," she said, and when he mouthed a protest, she looked at him, and he was quiet.

But then she was gone. She asked around the town. Very few people even knew the beekeeper's name. So it was true, nobody knew where he lived. Nobody wanted to know either. He was a cynical old curmudgeon who cared nothing for other people, and wasn't it strange that such a bitter old man sold something so sweet?

Wendy walked out of town, pulled her sleeves, rustled her wings, and flew back to her garden. She sat down to think. She pulled out the flute and looked at it. She considered. Hmm, she wondered. Every problem has a solution, otherwise it wouldn't be a problem. She was just about to write that idea down into her book, when a bee landed on a flower next to her, collecting pollen.

"Hello, what's this!" she said. But the bee was too busy collecting to notice anybody watching. Or to notice anybody following.

It wasn't easy. The bee buzzed to this flower or that flower, and then it zipped away in a blink, and Wendy zipped right after it to keep up. Then it was browsing another flower.

After the little bee had loaded as much pollen unto her legs as she could, she must have figured it's home-time while I can still fly. And now Wendy had to sprint her hardest, and keep that little bee in sight, even though it kept shrinking in the distance.

And then it was gone. Wendy looked around, not quite sure where she was. It was a part of the woods she had never seen from the ground. Well now what? she thought, but before she got to planning her next move, another bee buzzed by, and she was off again. And this time she had to jump, duck, and dive through the forest, scratch her face on a branch, bang her toe against a rock, redden her cheeks for lack of breath, and then none of that mattered because she was there.

She knew this for two reasons. First, there were bees flying everywhere. Second, something was humming the way only three thousand bees can.

Now's the time for stealth, she thought. She slipped by the bees, around a tree, and peaked through a bush. There stood a wooden shack, orderly yet sparse, with a geometrically stacked woodpile, a neatly swept doorstep, and a closed door.

I'll wait, she thought. Which wasn't easy. Just setting there anticipating! For the first fifteen minutes, fine. But then she wondered: what is a bee hive like anyway? And she wanted to take a lookóbut not yet, she thought. She pulled out her notebook and drew a picture of the hives. Then she flipped through.

That's funny, she thought, some of my words are missing. But I didn't erase them or leave gaps. Here is where I talked about my plans for seeing the world. And there is where I talked about unicornsóbut what's this I hear?

It was what she had waited for: from inside the shack came a sound like the green crystals of the caterpillar girl might have made, if they were tapped with a hammer; or the sound the silver tears of the mirror girl would make, if they were carried in the wind. Not only could the beekeeper play the instrument: he was magnificent! It sounded the way maidens might sing, if they were quick enough, but clearer than that, like coins falling on a table. Wendy listened in awe.

An hour later, after the playing had finished, she decided: That's enough for today. So she left.

But the next day she was back. Her wild blondish hair lay in neatly combed strands. Her dress hung clean and crisp from her well-washed limbs. Her fingernails hugged to her fingertips like pale moons.

She walked to the door and knocked.

Nothing.

She waited.

Nothing.

She knocked again.

Again nothing.

Again she waited.

Then she curled up her pedicured hand and pounded on the door.

Stirring. Somebody complaining inside. Footsteps. The door swung open, and a wrinkled old man with white hair and thick eyebrows boomed:

"Who is it?!"

"I'm Wendy!" she boomed back, since booming seemed to be the theme.

"Wendy who? Why it's a snot-nosed little brat come to steal honey from me!"

Wendy looked at him.

"You've probably kicked over one of the nests and you're here to brag about it, huh?"

Wendy looked at him.

The old man looked back, since looking seemed to be the theme.

Then Wendy pulled the silver flute from behind her back and presented it to the beekeeper.

"What's this," asked the old man. "A silver flute? Probably stole it, filthy thing." He paused, turned it over in his hand, caught the sun with it, pressed the keys.

"I suppose you expect me to trade this for honey?" he asked at last.

"I expect you to teach me. Charge me what you will," she answered.

"Not interested!" he snapped, and shoved the silver flute back in her handsóbut carefully. He turned around, the door crashed shut. Wendy blinked.

Then she went home.

But the next day she was back. Her blondish hair was wild. Her dress hung ruffled. Her fingernails held dirt. But so what? she thought. It's first impressions that matter, and it's not like his first impressions were any better. And this time she skipped the quiet knocking and started pounding on the door.

Stirring inside. Cursing. What must have been a wooden bowl must have been slammed on what must have been a wooden table. Footsteps. The door swung open.

"Who in the fifth rung of hell!óoh, you..." he said.

But before he could say a word more she said: "Now when I said you could charge me what you would, I didn't necessarily mean money by that. I can sew. Excellently. And my mother can sew. Even better. Whatever you want: clothes, boots, gloves, bee-keeper outfits. Or if you hate going to town so much, I could sell your honey for you."

She stopped. He looked perplexed. Then he said, "You know, I have up near ten-thousand bees living in those hives. They like me too. I've trained them. I can tell them to sting anybody who comes by here again, like tomorrow."

"Think about it," she said. And then she turned away before he could slam any doors, and she was running through the woods, and gone.

And the next day, when she walked up to the door, it opened, not needing any pounding, and the old man said: "There is only one payment I would expect from a student, but I've given up on it long ago. Since there is no way you could afford it, you should give it up and stick with sewing."

"What payment would you like?" she asked.

"Commitment."

Wendy waited.

"Commitment and passion. Like you love the instrument. Like you need the instrument. Like you have a thousand demons roaring in your soul, and the only way to let them out is through sublime and perfect music. I'm not talking about playing a pretty dance tune for the village cretins. I'm talking music. Real music, the laughter of angels, the dancing of gods. Can you understand that?"

Wendy paused. She considered. Then she pulled out her book, turned to one of her favorite poems she had written, handed it to him. Watched.

He looked at it and then he read it. Then he sat down on the front step and read it again. Finally, he folded the book closed and handed it back to Wendy.

Wendy looked at him. He looked at her. And for the first time since she could remember, Wendy felt naked.

"Be here tomorrow at 6 a.m. sharp. If you are a second late, the door stays shut. Do you understand?"

"Yes," she said.

"Good." He turned, entered the house, shut the door, and Wendy was running through the woods faster than any bee. And she shouted. And in the first clearing she barely had time to shrug her sleeves and she was flying, and she flew in a big loop and coasted on the breeze and laughed.

The next day, she was there. Early of course. She didn't knock till 6, but by then the door was open, and she entered the humble shack.

Its interior matched the exterior. There was scarcely any decor, but everything was clean and orderly, the floor swept, nothing out of place. There were pots and jars of honey on the shelves. There were stools. Two of them. The old man sat at one and pulled a flute from the shelf.

"Do you see this?" he asked. She nodded. "This is an ivory flute. It is very old and very special and you will not touch it. But you may listen to it. And now I will show you how to put a flute in tune."

So the months began. And Wendy was happy. Not that the practices were easy. Far from it. Sometimes they were downright degrading. She was told how to blow. Then she was told again. Then she was told a third, fourth, and fifth time, and by the hundred and fifth time she was quite frustrated, but hid it well enough until she finally got it right.

Then came scales. Her rhythm was off. Here probably the town's greatest poet, if not the country's, and she can't keep a simple rhythm between seven notes. And when the rhythm was finally part way musical, then she wasn't blowing right again, and so let's start all the way over again, because if you can't get the basics right, then the whole thing will just build on bad habits, and you might as well have left that silver flute on the ground where you found it.

But she endured. And when she got really angry, the winds would pick up, the doors would rattle, the shutters would shudder -- such was the magic of that flute -- and what did that matter because it was so simple, so simple but so hard, and if she could only get it right, she would be flawless, because practice makes gods.

And that's exactly what happened.