I was tiny, maybe three, when I first saw poppy fields. Poppy seeds are a staple of Hungarian baking, and it’s not uncommon to see massive scarlet fields in the countryside. But the sight of those tissue-paper petals in a breeze is so arrestingly beautiful that you find yourself beholding them unblinkingly, in a trance. You think, “How could someone possibly be a poppy farmer?” The flowers are too other-worldly to have any terrestrial use. We grow them in huge masses or accidentally in our gardens and watch the tight green bundles unfurl into too-delicate platters that hold fuzzy, dense, black stamens circled around a symmetrical pale green core, like a piece of thin red silk blotted with the blackest ink; and we think, yes, we should dry these and shake their seeds out and put them in a sweet roll for 100 forint (45¢). They reveal themselves in an abruptly-ending veiled dance, only to lose their petals on-by-one within a few days of their advent, leaving their naked stems and heavy, exposed hearts to droop in the sun.
The closest that people have come to figuring out the value of these flowers is when they mash them into opium or bleed them into heroin—but that’s a desecration; a misinterpretation of their substance. These are the flowers that the Greeks lay on shrines to Demeter, and the Romans lay on shrines to Diana. The goddess of the hunt was presented with these flowers and I was allowed to play in them when I was small. I was allowed to sit in the field, the flowers towering over me, like a placid, ebbing red lake. As far as I could see, my field of vision was filled with quivering blood-red blooms, the matte petals somehow shimmering against the blue skies. The entire world was shrouded in poppies. I felt like the littlest demi-god.
The farmer, on a tractor, eventually came and yelled at us; we were damaging his crops.