Wafts of incense smoke swirled around in ghastly shapes, slithering effortlessly through the sanctum of the Death Temple. The ominous atmosphere was accentuated by dark drapes hung behind windows; only the faintest of sunlight was let in. Four coffins laid in a huge cavity at the centre of the room, swallowed up in complete darkness, only their golden tinted edges could be seen shining like the last sparks of life before being smothered out. A few monks walked in from a side door, each pushing a cart of red poppies.
“Whether in sickness or health, in sorrow or joy, in pain or comfort, we ask for your eternal protection. The Almighty who rules over the life after, spare the suffering of those whom you have taken to the afterlife. And those whom you have not claimed, O lord, we wish you will never come.”
Crows that were circling the temple spires began cawing.
Monks emptied red poppies from crates
into those black coffin beds
silent and still, their unmoving hearts ached.
“Miss Poppy, I have placed your dinner tray outside,” the Handmaiden knocked softly, sighing at the lack of response. She was used to it now.
At the unripe age of seven, Poppy had all the physical features of a normal child – big round eyes, stumpy arms, brown freckles on her russet cheeks, so no one had really seen it coming when she started collecting jars of insects. Rotting, dead insects. Her fascination with morbidity had grown so swiftly and unexpectedly that before long she turned into someone completely unrecongisable. For hours on end, she would stare at her precious collection of jars, her normally dull eyes gulvanised to life, mirth and wonder swimming in those black beads. As if in the blink of an eye, her childish innocence disappeared, and was replaced by an intangible hideousness that made all her servants shiver in discomfort.
In her times of insecurity, the Handmaiden sometimes wondered whether her young mistress’ marked change in personality was due to her own failure in raising her into a normal child. Despite having never said anything about it, the Handmaiden was aware that Poppy was simply a pawn in Madam’s masterplan of monopolising the Religious Sect, a pawn that was piled with heavy expectations and isolated from other children since the very beginning. Because she was aware of all this, she had tried to shower Poppy with as much love as she could dole out, love that she knew Poppy would never receive from her mother.
“Miss Poppy, the food is getting cold. Please hurry and have your dinner.”
The Handmaiden was about to knock on bedroom door again but stopped short, as she was seized suddenly by a flash of memory. Before Poppy’s inexplicable change, she had a rather friendly relationship with her, teaching her how to read and write and play with her. Poppy had come up to her one day, carrying a huge dictionary, tiny finger gesturing at a particular word on the page, and innocently asked with a toothy grin “you read?”.
She took a look.
Death, n. The permanent termination of life.
Barren landscape. Parched earth. Sweltering sun. He woke up with chapped lips and a burning throat. Blocking out the blinding sunlight with his hands, he squinted his eyes. Endless sand that stretched on and on. A strangled cry of desperation escaped with his hoarse voice.
A lone poppy sprouted on the ground beside him. Its red petals projected outwards like a gramophone.
“Well, well. I’ve got myself a tormented father who can’t let go. This is going to be fun.”