Paper Poppies (For EW&R)

The setting for this piece is during WWI, and has no bearing on any military action in recent history or currently ongoing.

The poem at the beginning was written by Lt. Col John McCrae, of the Canadian Forces, in 1915. As far as I can determine, it is in the public domain.

In Flanders fields the poppies blow

Between the crosses, row on row,

That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly

Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago

We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,

Loved and were loved, and now we lie

In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:

To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die

We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

The envelope was cream; the logo, black; the name, dread. Western Union Telegram. When it arrives, she knows. The fear that sometimes receded to a buzz somewhere under her breastbone but never went away, not even when she slept; the buzz becomes a beat becomes a pounding becomes all she can feel, all she can hear. Everything goes red around the edges. The days, maybe weeks, without a letter — explained now — those days and weeks, time inched by, flowed slower than the glass in the window, took hundreds of years to pass. Those days and weeks she prayed for time to speed up, to be tomorrow, next week, next month, the day for demob — those days and weeks were bullets compared to what happens to time when that envelope appears. There is no time. Every thousandth of a thousandth of a second she feels, she lives in full awareness, plenty of plenty of time to feel the horror and the loss.

Hands shaking. She can’t open the envelope. She’ll rip the telegram to shreds just trying. Why do they send telegrams? The messenger boy doesn’t stay, raises his cap and nearly runs down the stoop, without even thinking of a tip, because he knows what it means and his dad, his big brother, his uncle, his best friend, maybe his lover — they’re there, too, and it could be one of them next, could be his house that gets that cream envelope with the black logo. And so there she is alone. Alone. She can’t open it alone, so she runs next door, even though she hates nosy old Mrs. James, because it doesn’t matter anymore that she has to ask about things that are none of her business, because she’s breathing, she’s a human being, she shares something with her after all.

The old lady’s face goes pale, too, and her wrinkled hand on her arm is a stabbing comfort. But the old woman can open it, she can still read. The letters haven’t changed into arcane lines on paper that made no sense, not for her, they haven’t.

“Missing in action.”

That’s all she can hear. Not when, or where, or how, just missing in action. Oh god, this is almost worse than killed in action. At least with that, she would know. She doesn’t want to know, but she has to know and this … this is maybe yes and maybe no and it could be weeks or even nevers before they know anything else and oh god, she can’t do it, she can’t.

Mrs. James calls her mother, the only good thing she’s ever done and Mama’s coming and she’ll kiss it and make it better and oh god, missing, missing, missing — all her heart can say.

Mama stays until the next one comes, the one that makes it real, the one that means there’s another reason to buy a paper poppy in November. By then, it’s almost a relief, just knowing, but there’s a whirlwind of things to do and everyone expects her to know what and how and when and why and oh god, don’t say why because there is no why, there’s never been a why and Fate isn’t a good enough answer, hasn’t ever been a good enough answer unless it’s someone else Fate has shat upon.

She can’t do anything. She can’t even remember how to make toast for christ’s sake. Nothing works. Her brain isn’t connected anymore. It will get better, someone says, and if it were anyone else saying it, she’d scream and slap them, but it’s Mrs. Timmons and she’s gotten three of the things, three — a widow and twice an empty-armed mother, so she knows and maybe for Mrs. Timmons it got better, but it won’t for her because he’s — he was, he goddamned was, not is — her life and it’s over, over, over and all she wants is for someone to make it all stop, to make it all go away.

In Flanders Field the poppies blow ….

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