Chapter 23 – Himalayan poppies


The cleansing ceremony in the desert came and went with no consequences, which was a little disappointing for Rosemary, who was hoping for some sort of vindication of her beliefs. Weeks passed, then months. The girls were as tired as always, but finally figured out ways to keep out of sight and thus managed to rest at least long enough to prevent themselves from falling asleep in company.

Life in the village continued virtually the same, and if one wasn’t intimately familiar with its daily intricacies, one wouldn’t have felt the subtle shifts in attitude or in the ways of doing things, but the elders were, and so they did.

They didn’t say anything about it though, not that this almost imperceptible shift didn’t concern them, but because they started noticing that for some reason nobody could understand, everything in the village just started working better. Whether it was the small adjustment to the salt content of the pickle brine that helped keep the cucumbers crisp longer, or the adjustments to the spinning wheel that rendered the yarn smoother, or even the way the Council archives were organized, that made everything easier to find. Everybody was happy about the improvements, of course, despite the fact that they were still unsure of whatever it was that brought them about, and couldn’t understand how more work got done since the group of girls responsible for it seemed to always be sleeping at the helm, so to speak.

Of course the automated yarn spinner remained well hidden under the floor boards of the workshop, oiled religiously to make sure it didn’t make noise, compliments of the blossoming engineering talent of a tiny girl whose presence was usually ignored.

Blanche’s new bean and corn hybrids also went unnoticed, and were only met with wonder and gratitude after the harvest, when the Council relished in the extraordinary luck the earth blessed the villagers with that year.

The craftsmanship of the baskets was better, because of the special solution the reeds were soaked in, the weaving patterns perfectly even, due to the optimization of the tension in the warp, and the fabric hues were brighter and more colorfast, compliments of the new mordants in the dye bath. The bread tasted better after a few tweaks in the proofing technique, the silverware was always polished to a mirror shine, grace to the tarnish remover the girls were experimenting with in class. Even scrubbing the floor took half the time, to Mrs. Gentry’s exasperation; every time she looked at the girls they seemed to be idling about, running their mouths with what she was sure was nothing but useless gossip.

Some of the more nurturing elders noticed the improvements, which under normal circumstances would have taken extraordinary amounts of work to implement, and assumed that the girls were always falling asleep because they were overworked.

The group almost got caught on numerous occasions while adding copper sulfate to the dye bath, or using the digital soil analyzers, but they managed to keep themselves out of trouble, for the most part, until fate decided otherwise.

Blanche, who had been experimenting with a Himalayan poppy hybrid able to withstand the conditions of a much warmer climate, mixed up the seed packets and accidentally planted it instead of the regular poppies in the large flower bed in front of the Council Hall. Nobody was the wiser until, a testimony to hard work, improved knowledge of agricultural techniques and surreptitiously added fertilizer, the entire field bloomed all at once, glowing bright blue and basking in the sunshine.

When Lucille arrived, summoned for an extraordinary Council session to witness this strange event, the whole Circle was already there, staring in disbelief at the delicate flowers. The girls were there too, with Blanche standing in front, torn between the joy of seeing the hybrid perform beyond her expectations and the agony of trying to figure out how she was going to explain all of this. Lucille snuck behind her and whispered, somewhat annoyed.

“That’s why they keep telling you over and over in botany class, LABEL EVERYTHING!”

“You wouldn’t happen to know anything about this, would you, Lucille?” Rosemary turned around, like a magnetic needle towards true north.

“Well, her hearing seems to be working well,” Lucille pondered while thinking of an answer. “I see the same thing you do, Rosemary, these flowers kind of look like blue poppies.”

“There is no such thing as blue poppies, Lucille. Not without wicked enchantments, anyway. Surely you must agree with that!” the former attacked.

Lucille weighed the difficulty of growing Himalayan poppies in their climate and had to agree that the charming sight in front of their eyes – a sea of blue petals moving fluidly in the breeze, was close to a miracle indeed. She made a mental note to congratulate Blanche on the successful hybrid later and took a second to think up a response.

“What kind of enchantments, Rosemary?” she asked, finally.

“To drive us all mad, of course!” the latter replied.

Lucille looked at the beautiful flowers again.

“They are very pretty, actually,” she said.

“Did anybody hear that?” Rosemary turned to the audience, which was just as perplexed as her by the unusual sight, half of it because they didn’t believe in the existence of blue poppies either, and half because they realized they had released a very large cat out of the proverbial bag and were avidly thinking of ways to put it back in. “The blue poppies don’t bother her in the least! What’s next? I fear, and heed my words, I fear that they are going to turn to the harvest next! What if they turn the tomatoes black?” she asked rhetorically.

Lucille wondered what ‘they’ Rosemary was referring to and how she knew about the black tomato cultivars, which weren’t going to be ready for another month. “No matter, I’ll figure it out later.”

“What makes you think they’re poppies?” she chose a direction for the conversation and moved forward.

“Do I look like I’ve grown feeble, Lucille?” Rosemary blew up. “I know what a poppy looks like! These are poppies, and somebody enchanted them. I’m sure it has something to do with the mirrors, the forbidden book you hid from us all these years and that curse you call your niece and I won’t rest until I find out!” She turned to Blanche, menacingly.

“You will tell us right now, girl, how these poppies turned blue, if you know what’s right for you! I’m sure the desert gets very cold at night!” she threatened.

“Leave the child alone, Rosemary,” Lucille intervened. “How on earth would she know?”

“Stay out of it!” Rosemary hissed. “She planted those flowers herself and I don’t trust her as far as I can throw her. Look at those eyes, she’s guilty as sin!”

“Actually,” Mrs. Eberhart pointed out, “there was a whole group of girls, if I recall.”

“Then they’re all in on the wickedness!” Rosemary protested. “Who else was here for the planting?” she started an ad-hoc inquiry. Several girls stepped forward, with apprehension in their eyes but no hesitation in their step. “Speak, girl!” Rosemary approached the closest one to her and got in her face. “Have you not heard me?”

“Yes, ma’am,” the girl mumbled, scared.

“How did you turn the poppies blue?” Rosemary pressed.

“We didn’t, ma’am! We just planted them, the seeds looked no different, we just planted them, that’s all,” she pleaded.

“I don’t believe you!” Rosemary raised her voice.

“Well,” Mrs. Eberhart intervened, “it is conceivable that somebody could have switched those seed packets without her knowledge.”

“Or enchanted them to change their color!” Rosemary replied. “Who knows what other curse they might have imbued them with! How do you know they’re not poisonous?”

“Who eats poppies?” Giselle asked innocently, and was dismissed with a brisk hand gesture by a very irate Rosemary.

“What if they just bloomed blue all on their own? It wouldn’t be the first time…” Lucille tried to remind everybody of the time when some of the pink roses in the public garden started putting out the occasional white flower.

“Sure they did!” Rosemary replied sarcastically. “And if you believe the good earth would yield such damned things as blue poppies, I have nothing more to say to you!” She paused to assure herself that she had the last word of the argument, and since nobody replied, she continued proudly.

“Burn this cursed field, and let its wickedness be gone with it!” she said with pathos.

“What’s with her and her obsession with burning things down?” Lucille wondered quietly.

“We’ll do no such thing!” Mrs. Eberhart protested. “We need to know what this is, don’t we? Let the poppies go to seed and plant them. If they come true from seed, then we’ll see where we go from there. If they don’t, then we’ll consider the possibility of evil influences.”

“With all due respect, ma’am,” Rosemary said, “I don’t think you’ll find a single soul in this village willing to plant the cursed blue poppy seed!”

“I’ll do it,” Giselle volunteered, her eyes filled with their customary naivete. Rosemary looked at her with disdain, wondering how she could have cultivated the company of this airhead for so many years.
“What?” Giselle felt the need to justify herself. “They look kind of pretty.”