Mystery Card Writing. #3
It was Spring again, and the crystal poppies bloomed.
I remembered my first time in the crystal poppy field. They were transfixing: bright orange and clear, the brilliant white sun shown through them, and they glittered atop their little green stems. The other children picked them and licked at them like lollipops, all with joyous abandon.
Even from the first, I was unsure.
My Papa always said that if it looked too good to be true, it was. He never accepted gifts and often said my mother’s wedding vows were the only promise he ever believed. There were times, though, I was unsure he even trusted those, though my Mama had given him no cause to doubt, that I know of. The Doubter, the village often called him.
No one had ever told us of the crystal poppies, though no one seemed surprised when we told them of it. Little Steffor just decided to leave the road on the way home from school, and the rest of us followed him. Perhaps that was why I narrowed my eyes at the candy flowers. I shook my head silently as the others plucked them, and cleared my throat in disapproval as little Anji extended her tongue to one. They all laughed, and licked their fill. Little Kyechin the Skeptic, they called me, as though it were something to be embarrassed about.
There were only eight of us. I come from a small village, and my brood had been especially minor. My older sister had a class of seventeen, and little Babi’s brood was almost thirty, but me and mine totaled no more than eight.
Now, of course, it totals one.
I still do not know why they never warned us of the crystal poppies. Every brood stumbles upon them. Sometimes I warned them. Sometimes I followed the younger broods home from school, having no broodmates of my own. They still called me Little Kyechin, even though I was older than them. I was taller than most, though I’ve always been small. Now, of course, I am taller than all of them.
Anji was the first. She awoke in the early summer with her eyelids so swollen she could not see. A thin, watery, yellow stream was leaking from each eye. It smelled like onions. Her mother wept a bit, and the other parents looked to their children with worry but no one said much about it. No one mentioned the crystal poppies.
Next, mid-summer, Steffor broke his legs. We were hopping on the stones in the stream just south of town, and Steffor made a little leap he had made a thousand times before, when both his shins shattered. As he fell to the ground, he threw his hands forward, screaming, to break his fall. Both his wrists broke as well. Even his skull cracked a bit as he finally met the wet earth. We had to take him to the next village over in a cart full of blankets, where the doctor told us his bones had grown brittle as ice. His wrists eventually got better so he could write his own letters, but his head grew swollen, and he was always being taken to the doctor to have it drained. He never walked again.
The parents stared at their children and fretted, and traded frightened glances with each other. But never my Papa. He knew he had raised his child well. He knew I would be fine. Once, my Mama was caught staring at me, and Papa simply took her hand in his and patted it. He shook his head with a tight, invisible smile, the only smile he ever had, a smile only for my Mama, and then she was all right. I had never felt more proud than then. I still do not think I have felt more proud than then.
Vevid came next.
It happened at the end of that first summer. All of Vevid’s hair fell out overnight. His parents were overjoyed, no doubt fearing a more terrible fate. When his fingernails and toenails followed, still they grinned and shrugged. Even when his teeth fell out; their smiles vanished, but still they sighed with relief. It was easy enough to mash food into a paste, and a boy who could not easily speak would be more inclined to listen.
Gieri, Hana, Byilko, Narvy, and Vevid, and Steffor, and Anji. And Little Kyechin the Skeptic. Nothing had happened to me, and yet strangely everyone seemed to find me a subject for pity. Even bedridden Steffor widened his eyes when he glanced my way. It was a great mystery to me, but I remembered my Papa’s invisible smile, and I carried on.
Then winter came.
Nearly all my broodmates had become ill. Anji had died by then. She reeked of onions when they buried her, and little Babi’s broodmates liked to whisper that if you had cut her open you would have found her full of that thin, watery, yellow stuff. That was only children telling rumors, of course. Who could say what was in Anji?
Everyone else was still alive. Steffor was learning to write again, Narvy had been shipped off to the big city to live in their hospital, and little Vevid seemed to be thriving despite his missing hair and nails and teeth. Vevid was in remarkably good spirits. He was growing, he excelled at school; he was so very charming for a boy who spoke so rarely. His eyes were captivating.
I asked Vevid, once, if he still visited the crystal poppy field. He just chuckled and called me Little Kyechin the Skeptic. The others laughed.
The winter was halfway done when it happened.
It was often too cold to walk to school, so the lessons had been ended until the thaw. I had not seen my broodmates for a week or so, except for Hana who lived only a few minutes away and sometimes came to play with my older sister who took pity on her: Hana’s face was a nest of blistery boils by then, and she spoke like sandpaper.
I was sitting in the corner of the big room, just outside my parents’ bedroom. My parents were both away clearing snow off the road: Steffor would be due for a trip to the doctor soon, and the path ran right by our house.
My sister and Hana were building a little village out of twigs that they had dug from the snow, when suddenly Hana turned to me. She asked if Vevid had been to see me. I said of course he had not; Vevid lived all the way on the other side of town, and most houses were not so close together as Hana’s and mine.
Hana said Vevid had been visiting her in the night.
Hana said she was having nightmares, and waking up to find Vevid sitting on her chest, his eyes full of orange crystal fire. He said he knew the way now, that he was going to take them all to heaven. Hana said he had grown new teeth, sharp as a wolf’s fangs. She said his nails were black claws, and his hair was brilliant fire.
I said it was just another nightmare. I said Vevid would not go traipsing through the snow after sundown just to terrify a boil-faced broodmate. Hana did not believe me, but she nodded and said that she did. I repeated to the tale to my Papa at dinner, though my sister told me not to, and he nodded in approval.
The next day, Steffor passed through.
He was not going to have his head drained, though. He was going to the big city. They were going to cut him open. He had died in the night, and some famous doctor had paid his parents a lot of money to see what had happened. Hana said her parents had overheard Steffor’s parents saying that the doctor had already paid a fortune to cut open Narvy. Supposedly he had died too. When I asked Hana how they could know any of this, she just rolled her eyes and called me Little Kyechin the Skeptic.
The next day, the snow was bad. It was not quite a blizzard, but it was bad. Still, our parents bundled us up, and marched us down to the church. A funeral was being held for Gieri.
I was surprised. Gieri had developed terrible gout in her legs, and had started growing hair all over. Not everywhere, like an ape, but anywhere a person might grow hair, she had a lot of it. I wondered if her gout had spread, or if the hair had choked her. She was already in her cheap pine coffin, though, and it was securely fastened shut. Hana dearly wanted to see Gieri, but there was nothing for it. Hana wailed and trembled, and her parents took her home before the funeral was over.
Hana died that night.
It would be six more days before the priest returned, though, so Hana was kept in her home. I followed my weeping sister to her house, and looked about while she begged to see Hana’s body. Hana was already in a pine box just like Gieri’s. Her father’s eyes were red and swollen, but he was calm and firm: Hana was gone, and she could not be seen.
My sister shook me awake that night. She wanted me to come with her, to help her pry open the pine box and look at Hana before she was buried. I did not want to do it, but my sister struck me and said she would kick my teeth in if I shouted. So I shrugged into my clothes and coat and boots, and we trudged through the snow to Hana’s home.
We were halfway there. Our house had just vanished between the surrounding trees, and Hana’s was not yet in sight. Suddenly, a sun burst in the midnight sky. We looked up and saw a blinding white meteor flying across the veil of night, burning away the black in a horrible bright glow. By the time our eyes adjusted, the meteor was gone, and the cool blanket of night slowly fell back upon the sky. We stared at each other, silently, for several minutes, before we continued on our way.
“How many of your broodmates ate the crystal poppies?” I asked her as we walked. No one had mentioned the poppies, of course, but they were on everyone’s mind.
“Four,” she said. I knew which four had done it. Three were still alive: two bedridden, and one of those blind. The third could no longer speak or understand most of what anyone said. Everyone thought his father would smother him in his sleep one night and put an end to it, but so far nothing had happened, and the three survivors of the poppy went on, mostly ignored. The fourth had died from choking on a swollen tongue. But what did it matter? My sister had other broodmates to keep the village carrying on.
We reached Hana’s home. My sister broke a window as quietly as she could with a small rock, and we waited in the chill for ages to make sure no one had woken up. She climbed through the window and stifled a shriek. When I made it in, I saw that Hana’s father was sleeping in a chair beside the pine coffin. He looked collapsed, like all his bones had left him. He was just exhausted, though. He still had all his bones.
My sister had brought a crowbar with her. She shoved it into my hands and pointed at the box. I shook my head and pointed to Hana’s sleeping father. We shoved and mouthed in silent fury at each other until finally, my sister took the bar in hand and jammed it into the box’s lid. The coffin screamed like a dying infant, yet Hana’s father awoke slowly and groggily. The lid was open enough to fit your head through by the time his eyes were open. My sister looked inside, aided only by the moonlight from the distant windows, yet still, she saw enough to make her howl like murder.
Hana’s father was furious. He shoved us out into the night and ordered us to walk home, shouting that he prayed we would die of cold before we made it. It was an idle threat. The snows were still mild for that time of year, and it was only a few minutes home.
That night, Byilko had died. I would not learn this until Sunday, though. He lived on the other side of town, and evidently no city doctors were interested in his remains.
Hana and Byilko had their funerals the next Sunday. My sister did not go. I asked her, afterward, what made her howl. She said Hana had been crushed. She had been mangled, like a great rock had fallen on her. It made me shudder.
The winter carried on. I expected to hear of Vevid’s death, but the news never came. He had not been at the funerals either. I decided, strange as it was, that I would ask Vevid if he had indeed been terrorizing Hana at night, and if he had visited any of our other broodmates as they dreamt. I told no one of my plans, though. I still thought of my Papa’s invisible smile at his skeptical child, and feared to lose that.
It was the night before the thaw when Vevid came for me.
I dreamt I was drowning in a deep black sea, and that all my broodmates were in little boats floating on the surface. I reached up to them, and they all laughed and called me Little Kyechin the Skeptic. They were not laughing at me, though. They were remembering me. None of them saw me drowning beneath them, or they did not care. I looked down into the depths and saw only blackness. The moonlight scattered into nothingness in the deep black sea, and the scattering light seemed to form the shape of my Papa’s face.
I awoke gasping for breath, to find Vevid sitting on my chest. He smiled at me with long, sharp fangs. He clutched at my nightshirt with hard, black claws. His hair was fire. His eyes were the sun.
Vevid’s nails dug into my chest as he pulled me from my bed and out the front door. The snow melted at his steps. He dragged me to the road and giggled as he leapt up into the air, carrying me with him. He leapt, but kept going up and up and up, flying like a meteor into the night. He shrieked a clarion cry of joy, and the stars vanished in a white burst of daylight.
I closed my eyes against the brightness, but Vevid put a thumb and finger on my lids and pulled them open.
he shrieked at me. We were facing downward into a world of shadows. The snow, which normally shown brightly against the moon, was a dark gray field against the white sky. Everything else, trees, houses, rivers, were just pockets of shadow, pockets of nothing.
He screamed again. It was an accusation, a condemnation.
“This is your world”
He bellowed with the bright purity of a god.
“Look at the shadow”
“Look at the endless gray”
“Look at the death of it”
“Look at the emptiness of nothing”
I was terrified that he would drop me. I kept trying to close my eyes, but he held them open.
“Look at Hell”
He yelled so loud, I thought surely my Papa would awaken far below. Then, he released my eyes and hugged me tightly to him. We turned in the sky, and he faced me toward the blinding white above.
He commanded, and I obeyed.
Up above, in the pure white, I could barely keep my eyes open. Yet as I squinted, I thought I saw a few off-white shadows swirling about in the brilliant brightness, like fish flitting in a bowl.
“I brought them all to Heaven”
“They were with me, and they believed”
“But you were Little Kyechin the Skeptic”
“And you are doomed to trudge in Hell. You will die on earth, like an ant in the dust!”
He let me go.
My body slowly twisted away from the blinding white to the dull gray beneath me. I did not scream. There was no point. I watched the great gray world rush up to meet me, and wondered why.
Every spring, the crystal poppies bloom, and some children from among the broods stumble upon them. No one ever talks about the field or the flowers, even me. Even when little Babi lost his jaw and two of his fingers, we never spoke of it, though every day since then I saw my Papa look at Babi in a way he never had with me or my sister. It made me sad.
There are still nights I dream of that midnight flight throughout the day-lit sky, when Vevid condemned me to the life I already knew I would live. Just like that night, I’ll awaken in my bed, sitting up, covered in sweat. But now I am married, and now I have comfort in the night. Now I have children of my own, and they will all be called Little Skeptics.
But the poppies bloom, and we all let them.
And every time I dream, I see my broodmates swimming in the sky.