Would a Cactus by any Other Name
Penetrate as Deep?
The other morning as I was retuning from my walk to Drunk Bay where I'd shot some promotional photographs of my cigar box guitar amongst the whimsical coral, rock and found object sculptures, obelisks and wacky who-knows-what that folks have created along this wild and windswept stretch of uninhabited beach, I had an awkward, somewhat surreal encounter that bears retelling.
I'd packed up my little Canon point 'n shoot camera and a cigar box guitar and had headed back to the little path that wends through the bush that leads to the beach at Salt Pond. I enjoy this particular path as it leaves the crashing waves over your shoulder and then winds first through coral barrens and into scrubby bush filled with thorny Catch 'n Keep, Christmas bush (one does NOT want to receive a Christmas gift from this bush...it is pain that keeps on giving!) and stubby seagrape before it opens up on the left to the real salt pond - a shallow, brackish body of copper colored water where old-time West Indians would harvest salt and, when ill, would go and lie in it to cure a variety of illnesses. I passed various long-legged wading birds languidly hanging out in the pond, although I can't figure that out...I've never seen any fish and it smells really rank!
As the sandy path meanders along the salt pond's shore and away from Drunk Bay, the wind dies and the tropical heat turns up. Off to the right the vegetation thickens, broken only by
occasional small paths, or more accurately, nocturnal byways for bush goats, deer and the errant wild donkey. Now and again the landscape gets punctuated (literally!) by tuberous, prickly succulents like aloe (good stuff for those sunburns...and cactus wounds!), gigantic, stately century plants and pineapple bush (mutant generations away from their fruit-bearing cousins, the Hawaiian pineapple). But the most striking of the vegetation inhabitants in this arid, tropical terrain are the cacti. There are a few different varieties, but I only know the names of two.
I am familiar with the Turks Head Cactus because, well, it looks like an unshaven, short, fat, green turk wearing his colorful red fez. Some show-off Turks Heads will wear multiple fezzes (fezii?) and can get pretty rotund though they will rarely stand more than two feet tall. Probably related to the barrel cacti family, the Turks Head fez produces a delicious little fruit that looks like a tiny, pink pepper. But it's not hot; it's sweet and tart, very high in vitamin C. Trouble is, each 'fez' produces only one or two tiny fruits at a time, so if you want to have a tasty snack, better plan on traipsing around in the bush, getting sunburnt and certainly stabbed by more than a few stationary, though angry, Turks! But, then there's always the aloe!
The other cactus is less cute and somewhat more dramatic with its great height and multiple, cylindrical green arms rife with rows of small, spiky thorns no more than half an inch long. The thorns are almost invisible from afar. But if a hiker is not careful, the arms of these cacti can have a long reach and give one quite the laceration. These cacti look much like smaller versions of southwest America's saguaro cacti, but here in the Virgin Islands, the West Indians call them “Dildo” cactus. Their idea of humor, perhaps?
Anyway, as I was slowly strolling along the path back to the beach at Salt Pond, enjoying a brisk seabreeze on my sweating back and the sun's warmth on my face, the arid scenery unfolding before me, I was not thinking of anything in particular when I thought I heard voices. Not the 'Paul on the road to Damascus' kind of voices, or those from the tourists beginning to arrive at the Salt Pond beach; I was still too far away from there and the wind wasn't right for that. These voices sounded a bit...shrill and amazed? A few steps closer and I identified them as women's voices. A few steps more and their British Empire accents became plain.
Now, the path to Drunk Bay is not often traversed by tourists, especially in mid-day. It's too short for a good, strenuous hike. It doesn't lead to a comfortable, family-oriented sandy beach. You have to go by that stinky, orange pond. And it's too damn hot in the daytime even for the lizards to show themselves! Unless one were fascinated by the wonderfully wacky, often bizarre, impromptu assemblages that come and go, fashioned by the mercies of the sea and the whim of the artistic types who erect them, who would be out here now except another nut like me?
“Oooooh, just look at that, Agnes!” said one in utter amazement.
“You better stand away from it, Olive, dear. It looks dangerous,” worried Agnes, drawing out the word dangerous for added impact.
“Pah! You sound just my son, you do, always telling me to be careful. Watch out for this...watch out for that! Tiddles to you, Agnes, this is fascinating and I shall get as close as I like,” chided Olive. “I'm getting my camera ready for this, I am! The garden club will want to lay eyes on these fellows!” she continued defensively, clipping her words in a high-class British sort of way. “You don't think I'll need the tripod, do you?”
Just then I rounded the bend about twenty five feet from the pair. I was sweating profusely and had removed my shirt. In one hand I carried the shirt, in the other a cigar box guitar. My point 'n shoot camera bulged obscenely within my shorts pocket. The two women had paused by a tiny clearing, just off the path and were admiring something not yet visible to me. They each appeared to be well into their 70s or early 80s, though it was hard to tell by their garb.
Each wore a variety of bush gear that I imagined one might find in a British Army-Navy surplus store: long-sleeved khaki bush shirts, sturdy hiking boots with the calf-length wool socks pulled up over their khaki jodpurs. Each wore a vest, outfitted with countless pockets filled with God knows what - perhaps a Middle English copy of the Canterbury Tales or a Cadbury or two...maybe a refreshing Schweppe's? - though one vest was green and the other...khaki. The larger, stout lady wore a genuine English pith helmet and sported a large red bandana, Boy Scout style, around her neck in addition to binoculars, two cameras and a compass. She was Olive, and definitely in charge.
Agnes was considerably thinner and a bit shorter than her compatriot. She wore under her floppy-brimmed cloth hat (also khaki) a long, loose, Lawrence of Arabia styled white scarf that trailed down behind her thin back. She also wore binoculars around her neck. And a whistle. Each had a canteen strapped to their waists and carried a sturdy knapsack and hiking stick. Imagine a female version of Laurel & Hardy cast as holdovers from the Boer War.
I had noticed them for about 5 seconds before they noticed me ambling along the path, my hair wild and windblown, shirtless, sweating and appearing for all the world as a castaway. As I entered their peripheral vision, they startled and stood up straight, clutching their hiking sticks.
“Oh!” uttered Agnes and she made a small step closer to Olive. Both women stood with their mouths open, speechless, just staring as I approached. I raised up my hand carrying the cigar box guitar and waved at them. They just blinked. I thought that at any moment they might either break off in a sprint through the bush or, more likely, give me a sound thrashing with their sticks.
It was Olive who broke the silence. “I say there, my fine fellow, do you know what these are?” Olive gestured with her stick towards a bulbous pair of rotund cacti.
“I sure do,” I said cheerily, trying to put them at ease. “Those two little guys are Turks Head cacti. See the little red fez each is wearing?”
“Astounding!” gasped Olive, taking out a tiny notebook and pencil. Agnes still wasn't so sure about me. “We wish to photograph them for our club back in Sussex. And this tall, rangy fellow here,” said Olive pointing her stick at the dildo cactus. “Do you happen to know what it's name is, too?” I could see in her bright, hazel eyes that Olive was starting to get a little excited. Agnes remained motionless except for the fluttering of her Lawrence of Arabia scarf generated by the light breeze.
“We really should be moving on, Olive,” said Agnes, sotto voce. “They'll be wondering where we are.”
“Pish-posh, Agnes! This gentleman seems to know some things about the flora on this wonderful island. Now, what did you say you call this tall fellow here, then?” chirped Olive, turning to me. She lowered her stick and raised her pencil.
“I don't know its Latin name, but I do know what the West Indians call it. It's kind of crudely suggestive and I'm not sure I want to offend you nice ladies,” I said, trying to add a bit of humor and perhaps defuse Agnes who I was not yet convinced wouldn't bolt off like an iguana through the bush.
“Whatever do you mean, sir? We did not fall off the dustman's lorry yesterday you know,” retorted Olive, waving the little notebook in my direction, a bit of annoyance flaring up in her voice. She now reminded me of the Hyacinth character in the BritCom, Keeping Up Appearances. “I do believe I can manage the bloody name of one of the residents of God's great garden!” She hooted at me like an astonished owl.
Well, OK then. “It's called the dildo cactus,” I said, looking at them directly.
Wide-eyed, Agnes stepped closer to Olive and grasped her forearm as if she might faint at any moment. Agnes glanced tentatively at the bulge in my shorts. Both ladies' mouths again dropped open and they stared at me like deer in the headlamps. For a moment even Olive was speechless. It was as if the earth stood still. I thought maybe this would be what it would take for Agnes to begin blowing her whistle, but she remained stunned. 'I've tazered them with my words!' I thought to myself.
It was Olive who, again, broke the silence. “Very well then. Thank you, sir, you have been helpful and now we really must be going. Come along, Agnes!” And off they traipsed . . . straight into the bush!
I knew they wouldn't make it very far at all into the thick bush before they realized they'd better recalculate their route! I would have liked to have stayed around to watch this tiny drama unfold, but I figured the pair had had enough embarrassment for one morning. I resumed my walk along the path, further into my day.
It turned out, as it often does on this small island, that our paths would soon cross again. The next evening, both Olive and Agnes were at dinner with their two grown children at Miss Lucy's where I was playing music for the guests. I almost didn't recognize them without their khaki 'uniforms' and field gear. It seems Agnes' daughter, the lithe, blonde Sylvia, was married to Olive's chubby, pasty, son, Ted! All were from England and were together on holiday. Sylvia and Ted had already heard me play at Estate Concordia and had become 'fans'. In fact it was the bikini-clad Sylvia who had chased me down the Salt Pond beach to ask if she could have Ted take her photo with me and my cigar box guitar - just after my cactus encounter with their mothers! Sylvia introduced me to her mother and mother-in-law and when I said “I believe we've already met,” Olive and Agnes, suddenly recognizing me, exploded in laughter. It was now Sylvia and Ted's turn to be confused and stunned.
We enjoyed several more wonderful laughs and they all said that I'd contributed mightily to their holiday. You just never know, do you?