Once, the Sound Dad and I Loved Most

Joel Hans

Was the ribs of the cacti cracking and stretching and cracking again. With his gloved hand, he snapped off premature blossoms and sprouted arms so the young, fast-growing saguaros might crack and stretch toward the sky and not cartwheel over and unseat their own roots.

            “What did it feel like to grow as slowly as the originals?”

            “Thirty years to grow as tall as you,” he said, tending. The land was empty but for us and the saguaros leaking where we had to hurt them. A sweetness rose from the sap. 

            “I was asking how it felt.” 

            “Felt?” Beneath his hands a monastery of white petals, plucked and discarded. “I don’t know—you’re growing right now, too slowly for us to see. What does that feel like?”

            “Most days, nothing at all. Some days, everything.” Emerald ribs cracked, wept all around us. Growing pains.

            Dad yawned. “Everything—what is that?”

            “New noises only I can hear. Emotions. What do you think a saguaro feels? Bloated? A constant downpour?”

            “A flood.” He pinched another blossom and I nodded, but Dad’s face was turned towards a tranche of unscarred and unalive land, where his new desert had not yet spread.

            “Why not scatter the old seeds? They would’ve grown, given enough time. But they asked you to cultivate a whole new species.”

            A saguaro sprouted an arm. It reached to cradle the unabridged sky, then toppled, rootball wee and wild, laid bare.

            “Tell me what you think.” Dad drank deep from our scant water.

            “Almost no one believes a desert worth saving. But they see a saguaro, even one of your finicky ones, and they take a breath, at least, before leveling it.”

            Dad winced, let the canteen fall from his lips. Didn’t offer me any.

            “Vulnerable,” I corrected myself, “to us.”

            “You and me? We’re tending.” He indicated me, himself.

            “Us us,” I nodded at the colony. “Anyone who dreams about conquering.”

            “It’s a good theory.”

            “But am I right?”

            “Let’s say you’re right,” A long-toothed spine had pierced his glove, and he pulled it out. “Why did I make them so finicky?” He pointed, blood blooming from the end of his finger.

            I laughed. “So they need us.”

            “Us us?”

            “No.” I pointed this time. “You and me.”

            “Oh,” Dad said. “I wish I could make you take a hundred years to grow up.” 

            “But you wouldn’t—”

            “Don’t say it.”

            A woodpecker landed on a saguaro’s outstretched arm and pecked out a home for its young. 

            “In a way, we are those conquerors. Who knows what lived here before we started replacing it with finicky saguaros? If they weren’t finicky, we wouldn’t need to stay here to care for them. Wouldn’t have the time to think about what we’re taking and what we’re tending. You wouldn’t be able to carry on the memory.” Dad plucked one fruit from a saguaro. “You’d have no reason to ask your ridiculous questions.” He pushed my shoulder with his fist, made the fruit bleed violet across his hand. “And I’d have no reason to care so damn much about how I answer them.” He cut the fruit down the center with the knife he kept on his belt. He knew the cacti so well, every rib and spine and crest, because he’d made them. “That sound like a good theory?”

            A part of me cracked and stretched to carve a home for the hurt I’d need to cage inside my ribs. Dad handed me half of the fruit and sweetness unfolded across my tongue. He rolled a thousand seeds, ink-dark and small, into my palm and summoned me to sow. A while later, when the work was done, I reached up to rest my hand on Dad’s shoulder, but instead found him below me, his lips still stained with cardinal, straining up to grasp me once more before I grew away.

Joel Hans has published fiction in Story, West Branch, No Tokens, The Journal, Booth, and others. He edits Astrolabe, a literary journal in the form of a dynamic universe, and has an MFA from the University of Arizona. He lives in Tucson, Arizona with his family, and can be found online on Twitter @joelhans or at joelhans.com.

© Variant Literature Inc 2023