Where the Red Poppy Grows

The night I met my demon, I slipped into sleep like a monk dons heavy robes. 

 I was twelve years old, on the cusp of womanhood, with multitudes on my mind. 

Snow fell heavy outside onto the silent cul-de-sac street, the slick frosted asphalt reflecting cold stars.

My leonine guardian angel of girlhood’s yore, Ariel, had receded to a distant light over the moon, winking through my windows. He was ever Venus, my Dawn Star.

Ariel had begun to visit my dreams less and less often as I matured, becoming like a melody faintly heard in chapel halls, a ghost in a vestibule heavy with frankincense. His gold hair and eyes like slices of sky still haunted my mind, but no longer did they occupy my slumber. I felt adrift without him, as if I had grown too old for the dance of man and muse. 

 As my childhood waned, so did he, light replaced by the shadow of the moon. His hair became the radiant black of the crow, and he went by another name: Ariel into Samael, the Poison of God.

No longer were my stories of him filled with the delight of youth. Instead, he showed a face of darkness and nobility, of one who walked on razor’s edge and carried a scythe that curved as wickedly as his smirk. 

Samael was regal and sarcastic, with a black humor that bent on deadly, and much too mature for a preteen to handle. Gone was the softness of the angel, replaced by biting words and harsh lessons of the Demiurge, and my growing madness that onset with my first moon’s blood. 

“Grow a spine, child,” he would say, leading me through the very pits of Hell.

The learning curve was fast and hard as a professional batter’s hit – dealing with Samael was like charming a snake: one misstep and you were envenomed. I explored his new aspect in stories that frightened me, drafting fantastical fiction like Neil Gaiman’s phantasmagories, populated by angels and demons in a Cold War within a world bordering on apocalyptic. Trite and overplayed, but how was a pre-teen to know?  

The idea that I was dealing with the Devil scared me out of my wits. Mania, o mania, when you come masked as a thousand demons, sullying even golden angels, what are we to make of the maniac that suffers you?

What is one to do when their guardian angel turns into the angel of death? Bury their love and pretend the one they once cherished means nothing? I tried for months to deny him, and for a short period, my sleep was peaceful, free of the Grim Reaper and Mourning Star. But come autumn’s end and winter’s birth, he decided to interrupt my solace.

My sheets became a caul that birthed me into dreams that night, below into the subterranean depths of his halls. 

 The air hung with the smell of woodsmoke, rain, and loam. Frankincense fumes rose from the ground in wisps. White marble and sandstone in shadow.

It was as if the Oracle of Delphi’s caverns had been reclaimed by Python and transformed into an underworld palace. My long blonde hair trailed behind me and I was dressed in schoolgirl clothes, backpack full of mythology books, as if I had returned from a trip to the library. I shivered at the cool air, breath fogging before me. 

I could barely make out a torch-lit throne room of red velvet that swept out into the blackness. The room seemed endless as I wandered through it, lined with pillars that reached up into epochs of black.

“Hello?” I called, brave yet measured, imagining I was lost in Hades’ kingdom. I felt like blinded Persephone clawing her way back to her mother Demeter’s sweet fields, searching for the light but finding no escape. Instead, like Persephone, I was planted a seed, Kore the maiden soon to become Dread Queen.  

I was on guard, wary, each step measured and ready to run. Through the inky blackness, I could make out a raised marble throne shot through with veins of brilliant mica. There was Samael, sitting atop an intimidating set of stairs, his dark locks cutting a curtain across a face. He looked upon me in amusement, tossing an apple into the air.

“There’s no need to yell,” he said, his deep, rich voice permeating the room. I looked at him skeptically. He sat there cocky as a rooster, expectant and smirking, dressed in the red robes of an angel. His wings fanned out behind him as he took a bite of the fruit, serpentine tongue flicking out to lick the juice from his lips. I shifted uncomfortably at the feral display – he was challenging me, I knew, daring me to face my fear. I approached with caution, seeing the familiar eyes of my angel in a new face.

“You’re Samael?” I asked, fearful.

He looked almost bored.

“That I am,” he yawned. “Stop being unfamiliar. I don’t bite,” he promised, tossing me an apple. He grinned like a shark. “Come, you must be hungry. Eat.” It was like Red Riding Hood’s wolf dressed in her grandmother’s clothing inviting me to supper.

I caught the apple and narrowed my eyes. “I’m not dumb enough to eat the food of the underworld,” I replied. “I’ve read enough stories to know I’d be stuck here.”

Eventually, I would eat the forbidden fruit, and it would change me irrevocably. But that night, I abstained. I tossed the apple back.

He laughed. “Smart girl. But would being stuck here with my pleasurable company be so wretched? I like to think of myself as charming – an accommodating host. You would have all that you desired. More books than you could ever read.”

I shook my head in disbelief but ascended the stairs anyways, setting my backpack down at his feet. D’aulaire’s Book of Greek Myths spilled out. He eyed it and smirked in amusement.

“You’ve been reading too much again,” he observed.

I pursed my lip in disgust. “Not enough, apparently. I’d rather be dreaming of Athena than you. She’s my favorite goddess. You’re lame. I hate Christianity.”

“Well, thank you, budding Pagan. But you’re dreaming of me and not her for a reason.”

“I know why I’m dreaming of you,” I said. Samael towered over me as I looked up into his eyes, not believing what I was seeing. “I’ve been writing too much, that’s why.” That was in fact, true.  I sighed, massaging my temple. I closed and opened my eyes to refocus them. “I can’t trust you.”

“Why’s that, sunshine?” he asked, bemused.

I climbed the throne, sitting on its arm and dangling my legs over the edge. “Because Wikipedia says you’re the Devil. You’re evil, right? And you’ve been tricking me all these years.”

“Don’t believe everything you read on the Internet,” he sighed. “And I’ve never told you a lie.”

“That’s different from telling me the truth.”

He placed his hands on my shoulders, eyes intent. “What does your heart tell you? Am I untrustworthy?”

“Well, you didn’t tell me who you were for years,” I said, unsure. I wanted so much to throw myself into his arms and demand why he’d been gone so long. To ask why he’d discarded his angelic face and taken on this terrifying form. He saw the softness in my eyes and brushed a lock of hair from my face, touch tender like it had been in my youth.

“You weren’t ready,” Samael said gently. “If you’re frightened now, imagine how terrified you would have been as a child.”

“So you are the Devil,” I whispered.

“I’m whatever you want me to be.”

We sat in silence. I gathered my courage. “I don’t know who you are, then,” I said. “You’re not in my mythology books. And the Internet says all these different things about you. But I do know one thing: you’re terrifying.”

Hurt flashed in his face momentarily, then he masked it. “There’s a reason gargoyles are fearsome,” he said quietly.

“Why?” I pressed.

“To protect their charges. I am Hell’s watchdog.”

I scoffed, fright bubbling beneath my false courage. I looked like a mouse bristling its fur, trying to scare the cat whose claws entrapped it. “I don’t believe in Hell,” I said quickly. “I also don’t believe in demons. And angels are stupid.”

“Are we now?” Samael asked, amused.

“Yeah, you are. Christianity is too black and white, good and evil: it’s not interesting and complex like other mythologies. I hate it.”

“No one’s demanding you convert.”

“Good. Because I’d rather die before I believed in fluffy-winged men in dresses with nothing better to do than sit around singing kumbayah all day. And don’t get me started on how stupid the idea of Satan is.”

“And why is that?”

I crossed my arms. “Nothing’s totally evil. Humanity doesn’t need some red-skinned pitchfork-wielding Devil tempting us. We mess things up enough without the help of demons.” I side-eyed Samael. “I don’t know who you are or what you want from me, but I am not calling you Satan. I refuse to believe in such a stupid idea.”

He leafed idly through my mythology book. “Well, I’m glad we have that settled. I prefer Sam. Sam Hill.”

“Sam?”

“What? Were you expecting something nefarious?”

“Well, yeah.”

He laughed, and that clarion sound was like church bells stirring worshipers to prayer. Something in me broke at the familiar beauty of it, and I found myself crying. Samael fell silent. Pain washed across his razor-blade face. He hushed me, pulling me into his arms. The spice of his skin was like the desert oasis from which he hailed. I gave in, burying my face in his chest and sobbing.

“Why did you have to change?” I sniffed.

“Everything falls eventually,” he said softly. “I couldn’t exist in Eden with you forever. You were growing, girl, and I matured with you.”

His voice was still the same, and if I closed my eyes, I could picture myself back in the arms of my seraph.

“What if I don’t want to change?”

He smiled sorrowfully, wiping my tears with pianist fingers. “There is nothing more beautiful than watching you grow. To not change is death, and that is the exact opposite of what I want for you. I want you to flourish: to bloom.”

I sniffled, looking up into his ageless eyes. “There’s so much pain in you,” I explained, knowing he was the embodied pain in myself. “I hate it. I hate seeing you like this.”

I hated seeing how my madness had begun.

Samael looked startled. “That’s a kind wish,” he said, my mind in smoke and mirrors fashion conversing with myself. “But pain is sometimes something to cherish. Sometimes, it’s the only reminder that we’re human.”

“You were never human, Sam,” I said, testing out the name.

He laughed wearily. “Maybe it’s time you see me as such. As fallible.”

(Sometimes, it is okay to be an imperfect, grubby-kneed twelve year old. Sometimes, the world is a scary place for girls.)

I burrowed into him, sighing. “I don’t care what you are,” I said, tired. “I just don’t want you to leave me,” I said, earnest, longing for the comfort of his old form.

(Split personality, Demiurge, Ariel-Samael, the Lion-Faced Serpent of Old.)

“Then there’s no need to worry. I’ll never leave you. I may change, but it will always be me, no matter what you call me.”

That promise has rung true to this day. My understanding of him has grown, and our dance has changed with the seasons, but my angel continues to haunt my dreams. 

 People come and go, but he remains, blazing on the horizon, mania always out of reach.

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