This Winter’s Poppy Red

This Winter's Poppy Red

Angelina Feng | Art by Aanya Mishra

I watched a fleet of planes shoot off into the distance outside my window, branded with the gleaming seal of our military. To the epicenter of this war, probably. It used to make me so sick I couldn’t even think, those weeks after the first draft cards were sent out. Now it just made me think of Jason. Jason, my older brother. Three years older than me. I called him every day that I could remember, anxious as ever to talk to him. It had been a long time since he had picked up, because he didn’t think it was worth it to share bad news. In an air force barrack somewhere he wasn’t allowed to tell me, his presence was still in the small room in the shelter that we used to share. On his desk are sheets of cheap looseleaf with unfinished design sketches and a small stack of birthday cards, for his 17th. My old scars from our childhood scrapes, a pressed poppy in a glass frame. The other bed is strewn with the clothes he couldn’t fit into the canvas bag. The phone didn’t ring once before it connected. Like he had been waiting.

“How are you? Do you want me to send anything? Are you finally going to fly?” 

A pause.

“No. We’ve had a new assignment for a while. I thought I should tell you.” He sounded tired. 

“Oh, really? What is it?”

Another long pause.

“They want kamikazes.”

I knew then. I knew what all the falling comets I saw had really been, and I knew why so much scrap metal had washed up near the pier, and I knew that the war wasn’t going anything like what they said on the radio. 


Static. All of a sudden I could see the outline of one of the last sunny days we had. Years ago, before the ashes. Everything is still good. That Saturday, Jay and I studied drowsily on a picnic blanket in our backyard, in between the white magnolia and milkweed. Idle swallowtails and dragonflies flitted by, brushed off the crisp pages of our workbooks. There was a pitcher of yuzu lemonade filled with ice, and a thin layer of honey, glossy, had sunk to the bottom. Groups of honeybees diligently collected the remainders in the overturned jar. A bird, so indigo it was almost black, suddenly dove next to me, snaring the ones in the air. I observed it, almost stupefied. 

“What are you doing? Stand up!”

He pulled me up by the arm forcefully and pushed me towards the shed as the buzzing grew behind us. Inside, we peered back through the window again, cautiously. The bees crawled on top of each other, incessantly replacing the last as fast as they stung. He stared helplessly. Over and over and over again. A cyclone of yellow in the air swarmed thickly around the bird’s form, set against the thin carpet of fragile exoskeletons accumulated on the grass, paper-thin wings twitching. His hands trembled, rested against the wooden frame of the door. He blinked slowly trying to calm himself. I kept my gaze straight forward. We watched them die off one by one behind the glass. 

“Carpe diem, huh?”, he said. I could almost see his dejected smile, picture his own version of the memory mirrored in his eyes. “I don’t know why it has to be this way either.” A brief flash of anger. “After… After this, I’ll be promoted to sergeant and you’ll have all the benefits of that. And maybe this is my duty to the country. Maybe this will mean something in the end.” Unsure, but hopeful, almost. 


He seemed to live almost furiously, trying to reconcile with how much time he still had. I saw him off two weeks later, from inside the barbed wire of a newly built base. Older than I remembered, in a ribbonless navy blue uniform. He handed me a letter from the cockpit with a kind of silent certainty, then returned his focus to the dashboard. The farmland had been converted into hundreds of airstrips, soil marred by the tracks of the slick metal jets. Piles of shedded bark from the eucalyptus trees littered the tarmac like deerskins. Takeoff.

I would open the letter carefully when lists of the ships they sunk came, preserving the last thing he left.

“My last November. Every moment is perfect. The calls I couldn’t bring myself to answer were a day closer to the end of something constant, for both of us. I can’t even quite come to terms with it now. Remember how it used to be? At the very end of winter the poppies would bloom all at once beneath us, vermilion. And when I turned I knew you’d be running beside me. I only say this because it wouldn’t hurt so much if there weren’t so many bright things. Your life will be five times longer than mine. Live it well, alright? I would resent this more if it wasn’t for you. And it is all for you. I’m sorry for all the small things.”

As soon as he alighted, another plane crawled onto the runway, identical in make, stamped with the same insignia. Over and over and over again. Each had sent out their own painstakingly written letter, postmarked for today. In a flash of poppy red, a simple swarm of honeybees metamorphose midair into shooting stars.