This story contains sensitive themes including: mental health, grief, death, and blood.
At Dawn There Are Poppies
On the last night of August, when the hazy summer heat blurred toward an autumn chill, Emily found a single poppy growing in the woods behind the house.
A spot of sunset in the dark of the forest floor, the red-orange blossom shone like blood among the ragged brown pine needles. Emily dropped the plastic container she had been carrying so quickly that the tender, late-summer blackberries burst like fresh bruises on the ground.
“Mom?” she asked. Her teeth chattered in a sudden chill. She studied each shadow through the grief that gnawed at the edges of her vision. Emily’s voice cracked. “Mom?”
A crow squawked. Emily grit her teeth and squeezed the blackberries in her fist until they smooshed and thick syrup seeped out between her knuckles. “Mom!”
Mom was gone. That day two years ago—the door open, the house empty. And Emily just plopped onto her bed and opened a book. Now, the shame from that day burbled up in her gut. She hadn’t gone to the neighbors. She hadn’t called the police. But by the time Dad came home from the mill, she had been sobbing. Where is Mom?
Emily glanced around, pausing to peer at the shadows between the trees. She picked the poppy and hurried home.
At night, Emily’s heart ached. For two years, she had often dreamed of her mother. Emily imagined the soft caresses on her cheek and warm kisses in her hair as she fell asleep. She wished for Mom to find her way in the dark, to find herself, to find a map or whatever it was she needed to come home to Emily.
Sometimes, when she lay in bed staring at the meandering cracks in her ceiling, or when she closed her eyes on the bus to school, it was just that Mom had needed a break. In her mind, Emily saw Mom slip on her heather-purple sneakers and green sweatshirt. She smiled as she slipped out the door. A day off, a walk alone, just until the kids came home. Mom had strolled through the neighborhood in the morning drizzle…and…something had taken them from her.
When Emily slept, a gloomy silhouette skulked outside her window. It bled on the blackberry thorns and dragged its broken body through the woods to the back door, crying to be let in. On the phone from his dorm room, Dylan reassured Emily he used to have nightmares too.
Emily dug an old photo of herself with Mom out of a stale cardboard box and set it in the backyard—by the broken bird bath by the edge of the woods—with a pair of turquoise earrings. Emily placed the poppy there, too, when she found it that night in August. And all through September, when she woke too early from the nightmares, when her froot loops tasted like cardboard and the kitchen glared too empty and fluorescent bright, Emily settled onto the soft earth by the broken birdbath and picked weeds.
On a chilled October evening, Emily wrapped herself in one of Mom’s sweaters and wandered into the woods behind the house. The blackberry bushes were bare now, their vines retracted and shriveled back into themselves.
And here, clawing up between the brown needles, another poppy.
Emily’s breath caught in her throat. She dug with bare hands around the layers of old pine needles, crackled leaves and dirt.
Just one poppy, a brilliant blood-orange. In October. In the same spot tucked in the woods behind the house.
Emily picked it, folded it into a torn piece of paper, and stashed it in her pocket.
Between classes the next day, she whispered this strange secret to Anna.
“They were your mom’s favorites, right?” Anna asked, much too casually for the severity of the situation, as they hurried down the hall to Geometry.
“Yes,” Emily breathed, stopping herself from grabbing her friend’s arm and shaking her to make her understand. “And it’s October, Anna!”
Anna lifted an eyebrow skeptically.
“Why would they grow now? Dad said they were marigolds. It’s not a coincidence. It’s the same spot!” Emily squeezed the paper with the flower tucked inside. The tears burned the corners of her eyes. “Tell me I’m not crazy, Anna.”
“Maybe,” Anna started. She hesitated, slowing as they approached the classroom.
She brushed her hand across Emily’s. “Maybe your mom is gone.”
The words crashed into Emily’s lungs like stolen breath. “But…we…” she tried. Her heart stuck and made the words thick on her tongue. “Even if that were true,” she said, “What is with the poppies? What are you saying, Anna?”
She was saying Mom was gone. Dead. That God or Mother Nature or even Mom herself, from wherever she was, had sent the these stupid orange flowers in this stupid orange month to bring Emily some half-assed comfort. “Bullshit,” Emily said.
But the next day, and the next, the poppy reappeared. Overnight. It grew, the whole flower in full bloom.
Emily snuck out in the dark to try to spy the next one growing up through the dirt with apparent unearthly speed, to witness it bloom. Whenever she checked, night after night, she found only litterfall, moist earth, and her own footprints. But in the morning, the lone flower was always there. Waiting for her like a tiny lame sentry.
She was crazy with grief, that was all, Emily told herself. Or Dad was playing some sick prank in a terrible attempt to keep her hope alive so they could both pretend Mom was coming home someday.
But she was dead.
Two years. Still, how could Emily admit she was dead? How could she know without knowing for sure? The world had moved on. The community, Dylan, even Dad. But Emily needed to know. The uncertainty would haunt her forever.
In the quiet of the night, alone in her house, Emily whispered in the dark. She sobbed, ripped the wilted poppies into pieces. Dylan away at college. Dad at work. And Mom gone.
But she kept fragmented petals, stuffed them into a recycled yogurt cup, hid them behind a stack of books under her bed.
Most nights, she lay awake in bed, alone, thinking about Mom. Emily ran her skinny hands through her hair, scraping out tangles, letting little rat nests pull free around her fingers. She dreamed, sometimes, of much gentler hands, of her mother’s sweet voice, her breath like blackberry jam and a flower-soft kiss on her forehead.
One night, she dreamed of poppies—overflowing into her palms, exploding spring blooms that denied October’s chill, that call back into the ground. The flesh of the petals veined blood-red and pooled all around her, filling up the floor, creeping up her legs extended on the bed, embracing her. The sun-yellow center smiled at her, but the black stamen wriggled like spiders. Emily reached as if to crush them. They crawled higher and higher.
In the morning, her sheets were soaked in sweat. She extracted the hidden jar—still stuffed full of petals.
The single poppy, a shining beacon of red-orange in the woods, no longer surprised Emily. She snatched it from the ground, roots and all, cradled it in her arms as she carried it to the broken birdbath. There, she poured the contents of the jar across her mother’s photo and the turquoise earrings. She threw the latest full flower down, too.
“I don’t know what to do,” Emily whispered. “Mom, please. I don’t know what to do.” Don’t be gone, Emily wished into the growing light. But if you are gone…if you really are. Show me. I need to know. Please. Mom.
Emily read every story of Halloween, Samhain, Día de los Muertos, the Devil’s Bridge festival in Borgo a Mozzano, Daimonji, Walpurgis Nacht, and any other ritual or holiday on any month of the year that brought the living closer to the dead.
“I need to know if she really is gone,” Emily admitted in the dark of her room, whispering on the phone. “I can’t shake it. It’s eating me up, Anna. I just… can’t. I can’t go on like this without knowing.” She swallowed the memories, the wondering and wishing. The nightmares that burrowed deep into her skull, wiggling like worms throughout the night and invading her dreams. And those stupid poppies. “I need to know.”
“Okay,” Anna said carefully, gently. “What are you gonna do?”
On Halloween, Emily hugged Dad hastily as he put on his coat. “Bye,” she said, not too eagerly. Not too nervously.
He frowned and tugged up the zipper. “You okay? Not too spooky for my poppy, huh?”
Emily winced. The image of those orange petals scattered over the ground flashed in her mind. She forced a smile. “Dad, I’m almost sixteen. Johnny and Emilio have to be home by eight anyway.”
“And what about after that, Em?” he asked, hesitating even as he opened the door. “I know it must get lonely without…with Dylan away at school and me at work and—”
“I’ll watch some creepy movies with Anna. Her mom said I could stay there or she’d drive me home, either way.”
“Alright,” Dad conceded, awkwardly patting her arm.
“See you tomorrow, Dad.” Emily waved him off. She waited, watched him climb into the truck, flash his lights in farewell, and drive off into the twilight.
From under her bed, Emily gathered the supplies. This is stupid, she thought as she examined them. But the poppy returned every single day, like an incessant, harrowing little phoenix. I need to know.
She scraped up every piece of petal from the altar by the broken bird bath and carried it, along with the photo, earrings, and other supplies, to where the poppy always grew. For weeks she had arisen at dawn to pick the flower, and now she descended upon the hollow amid the towering pines and curled, barren blackberry bushes.
The evergreen canopy blocked out the light already dimmed by the clouds and creeping night. Emily brushed away the twigs and few golden leaves that had fallen since she visited this morning. The earth was bare, damp and dark. She dug her fingers into the soil, breathing deep.
Four white candles. Careful runes in the dirt, ones that called for the thinning of the veil between worlds, between life and death, between here and gone. Emily and Anna had spent hours huddled together in the back aisles of the library poring over heavy, dusty books of history, mythology, about tarot and witches and magic.
Emily crushed the petals with a mortar and pestle, studying the orange, darkening in its juices. With a kitchen knife, Emily slit a long line into the flesh of her palm until the blood welled. She let it drip onto the flowers. She didn’t cry. She just needed to know.
She wrapped her hand with a shredded kitchen towel. Lit the candles with a neon-pink lighter from the corner store. In the dark, the flames flickered weakly.
With her uninjured hand, she scraped away the soil to make space in the earth. In this womb, she tucked her mother’s earrings, the poppy from that Halloween morning, and the orange-red mixture of ground petals and her blood.
Emily swept the earth back over the sacrifice. Far in the distance, children’s laughter echoed. She thought of Anna and her little brothers knocking on doors for tootsie-rolls. She thought of Dylan—probably at some campus party— and of Dad already at work. She thought of Mom.
Emily read, from a scrap of notebook paper, some ancient words meant to call across the void. I just need to know, she repeated silently.
The words done, Emily bowed her head, closed her eyes. She listened. The woods creaked. The wind hushed them. She heard no animal’s calls. No voice.
Emily dared a peek at the candles.
They sputtered with a force unseen. She glanced around her, wanting, yearning, begging and praying for something, anything. Her breath caught, a strangled cry on her lips. The candles’ flames burned brighter, higher.
And went out.
Emily exhaled sharply, but she did not move. She waited, alone, trying not to sob there in the dark. She waited for something, for some sign. I just need to know. No matter what. No matter what.
With shaking fingers, she picked up the lighter. Her thumb traced the rough track. A tiny light.
A car’s horn blared in the distance.
Still, Emily waited. For hours upon hours until she was falling asleep on the cold ground, until the rain drizzled through the green and soaked her and, defeated, she went home.
Maybe that’s it.
Emily stirred. The sun was already glaring through the gaps in her curtain. Hope dared to tickle in her chest and make her limbs light. I just need to know. Maybe I do now. There was nothing. A smile crinkled the corners of her mouth. No sign from beyond despite the “ritual” she had managed. Had it been enough? She had devoted hours and…
Maybe Mom is out there. She breathed, looking out her bedroom window at the trees. Maybe, somewhere, she is out there.
Or maybe you’re just a dumb teenager playing in her backyard on Halloween.
Into the kitchen, Emily crept with the weight of a new and more unbearable grief. Maybe I’ll never know.
“How you feeling there, Em?” Dad clinked a spoon against his cereal bowl.
Emily groaned at him. He chuckled.
“Come on, you got a chocolate hangover? Stay up too late with Anna?” he gestured toward the table.
“I just…” Emily started, then jerked upright. “I just need to check something real quick.”
She darted out the back door.
“Em!” Dad called, following her as she ran outside. “Emily! Where are you going?”
“Just—just wanna get some blackberries for my cereal!” she yelled.
He followed her onto the back porch as she hurried toward the woods. “Emily!” he shouted, and his voice rose and carried even as she ran away from him.
White puddles of wax and crooked, dead candles. The rain had washed the runes away, it seemed. And…no poppy.
Dad was still shouting, but Emily knelt in the dirt and dug around with her bare hands. Where was it? Had she really ruined this strange gift? Just a stupid coincidence, Emily thought. You’re just a stupid teenager who got obsessed over a stupid flower. She scraped her nails into the ground, softened by the rain and her previous disturbance. A stupid, desperate dream because you can’t move on. It probably wasn’t even a poppy, just a marigold after all.
“Emily!” Dad was closer now.
But where are the earrings? She pushed away the dirt. The mud caked under her nails, squished between her fingers. I just need to know.
She touched something. Cold and hard. Not the earrings. She shoved away the dirt.
“Emily! Where are you!” Heavy boots in the mud. A shadow grew taller behind her.
Emily was cold. Tired. Her father’s shadow hung over her. She pulled her hand away from the white thing, so cold, damp and forgotten in the mud. The shadow cast over the protruding from the ground, just the very tips of fingers that had once caressed her, that had once plucked the sweetest blackberries, that had once held her hand, that had once been her mother.
“Em?” Dad asked, that shadow behind her.
“I just needed to know,” she said.
Dad put a hand, too firmly, on her shoulder. His voice was without warmth. “What did you find, poppy?”
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Wow this is such a good story! The implication being her father murdered her mother, is that right? I like how you gave us this subtley with just a couple of clues in the language of how the father acted. The tone of the story was great too, i enjoyed the mixture of sadness combined with mysterious magic.
Thank you so much!!! Yes, that was the understanding I wanted at the end (without being too obvious). I’m so glad it worked for you. Thank you again for the comment!
What a wonderful story. The title pulled me right in before I even began reading. There was so much detail here, and that ending was cold and completely unexpected. I did not see that coming with the father's implied guilt! Sounds like Emily's intuition was telling her to keep digging, and/or her mother was sending her some hints. Beautifully written!