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Breath & Shadow

Spring 2021 - Vol. 18, Issue 2

"A Time of Poppies"

written by

Sharmon Gazaway

As we round the bend, Cole brushes my hand and points out the window. “Look, Paige.”

An acre field that was green the last time I saw it—a week, week and a half ago?—has exploded into a frilly extravagance of poppies. I’m not prepared for the paisley quilt of red, white and pink. What a waste of God’s energy—He could put it to so much better use.

I glance at the visor mirror. Joseph, trapped in his car seat, rocks his head side to side like a human pendulum ticking off the moments one by one by one. He’s been doing it since we left the house.

“It’s beautiful,” I say, remembering Cole is waiting for me to react. He wants me to be bowled over. So I try again. “Really, it’s gorgeous. You’ve got to get us some good pictures.”

This seems to please him.

“Bet you could write a poem about them.”

He smiles over at me.

“Sure. Yeah.”

With my thumb I press the pen-indentation on my third finger that has all but disappeared.

“Look, Joe. See the pretty flowers?” Cole says, robin-bright. “They’re poppies.”

I don’t bother to glance in the mirror. Joe won’t look, or if he does, he won’t see.

He rocks his pendulum head all the way to the therapist’s office. In the parking lot the scent of sun-warmed asphalt rises up, reminds me of Six Flags. We once planned to celebrate our first child’s sixth birthday there. Cole releases Joseph from the car seat and the head-swinging escalates into a rigid, full-body “NO”. I brace myself. The crying begins, the relentless cry of a two-year-old. Only Joe is six. That cry claws at me. I long to clap my hands over my ears, shut out that gut-twisting wail.

I refuse to look at the sign above the doors to the block building that says “Georgia Center for Autism”. My own private revolt. I refuse to read the label they have put on my son. My son.

Jade greets us, unfazed by Joe’s wailing and the snot. She and Cole chat as if they’re relaxing over coffee instead of wrangling a frantic child who has a life-altering disorder.

Their patience. Where does it come from? They never seem to fatigue, get discouraged or want to tear at their hair. I draw strength from them, but I resent all they are that I am not. I want to shake them, each in turn.

I stroke Joseph’s black tousled hair, so like mine. He keeps his glassy eyes—same green as mine—turned away. Deep in his world I don’t exist. I am invisible.


We pass the poppies on the way back home. They are so unexpected in our small mountain community, especially beside the huge concrete carpet mill. Like a Monet painting plunked down in a parking lot. I try to feel something, will myself to be touched.

The crepe-paper colors glare through the glass, make good their escape. And I, once moved to tears just thumbing through an art book at the dentist’s office, feel nothing. I am untouched.

“See, Joe? See the poppies?”

I say to the back seat, the words hollow like my ribcage. His head goes tick-tock, tick-tock.


Joe’s therapy continues at home. Life is replaced by Therapy. The object, we’re told, is not to bring Joe into our world, but to enter his. We do this by mimicking his behavior. We roll pencils back and forth across a table for hours, in tandem with him. We are rewarded if he reaches for one of our pencils or makes eye contact for a single second. For this we lavish him with praise.

I have pounded with a plastic hammer side by side with this child that is locked away from me inside himself for hours, without so much as a glance in my direction. My son, who spoke in sentences at one-year-old and potty-trained at twenty months.

There have been some breakthroughs. Once he turned to Cole and said, “Fun, huh, dad?” and we shouted and celebrated. Another time he voluntarily gave his pencils to his cousin and said, “Say thank you”. We laughed till we cried.

But it was always with someone else. Never me. We lie on our backs on the rug in the playroom. I’m inches from Joseph. Arms upstretched, he rocks a clear tub of toys over his head. And so, of course, do I.

How long have we been at this? My arms stopped aching and burning a long time ago and now they’re bloodless and numb. I rock my toys over my head, listen to the monotonous thunk, thunk.

My toys are mostly red and white, and somehow something pink got in there. The overhead light flashes with each wave of my arms. Red, white, pink, flash. Red, white, pink, flash.

Joseph breathes beside me, the air laced with the scent of gluten-free cookies. We breathe and move in unison, similar to when I carried him in my womb. Out of my reach; without recognition of me.

I would do anything for him. I will do anything.

Maybe his hand slips or maybe he’s just tired. His toys crash down on my head. I’m not hurt, but it stuns me. I suck in my breath and blink up at the light.

A small hand touches the side of my head and I turn. Joe’s green eyes brim with concern. I see into his soul for the first time since he was two. And he sees me.

Mumma, you okay?” he asks and pats my cheek.


The poppies fade and drop their sear sucker petals, give way to cobalt bachelor’s buttons and yellow daisies. The field browns and is mowed down. Seeds fall on sorry soil, but will yield again next spring.

An extravagance of poppies.

Sharmon is from the deep south where she lives in the woods and leaves her dead trees standing as habitat for pileated woodpeckers. She writes both literary and speculative stories and poetry. You can find her work online in Daily Science FictionLove Letters to PoeNew, OctavosWelter, The Society of Classical Poets, Backchannels, Tiny Spoon, Third Wednesday, and elsewhere. Her work was selected by Rhonda Parrish for an anthology, Dark Waters, to be released in the fall of 2021.

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