My mother’s sunken cheeks and eyes like polished stones. The holes in her skin like the moldy cheese the mice had nibbled through. Wounds leaking pus, foul smelling and warm. My only friends: two two-ribboned braids that hang on each side of my face and reach down past my hips. I pretend they are faceless dolls. When it is cold at night, I wrap them around my neck like a scarf. My hair, my only comfort. My hair: the only beauty there is in this ugly world. I may only be a little girl, but this is a truth I know.
My mother’s voice: one I no longer recognize. It is as if she is trying to call down a long hallway. She sounds like this even when I bend down, put my ear next to her mouth. A voice queer and wrong, like something squashed, trying to scramble out of a hole. “Promise me that when the time comes, you will sell your hair.”
How can she ask me this? My voice like a chain jerking. “No.”
Her fingers, swollen and knotted. A nail scraping my cheek, drawing blood. “Spoiled girl.”
I move away.
My mother, in so much pain, blinks back tears for me, only for me, for her spoiled girl. “Forgive me.” Not my words, but hers. The softness of her breath is as quiet as the fluttering pages of a book. Soon, she will be carted away.
I go, away from the floorboards, now cracked but once shiny and new, away from dust covered curtains, the smell of the sick. The streets are hustle and bustle. I do not know if it is day or night. There are voices all around.
“Little girl, look here.”
“An orphan, are you?”
“Such pretty hair.”
The last voice sends me reeling back. My hair is mine. Hands grab my shoulders. I wrench away, hunch in an alley, shivering. It begins to rain.
A pale woman with no eyebrows, her hair like a cloud of butterfly wings approaches me. “If you work for me, you’ll never have to cut your hair.”
She promises me a hot meal and a soft bed. What else is there to do then follow her past bodies being dumped in wagons and wheeled away, past houses with broken windows and torn doors, past women in garish costumes, leaning on banisters rails, showing their legs? She leads me to a room of girls. They are a tangle of limbs, girls with rivers of hair and button eyes. One girl wears her hair piled up like a castle. Another girl wears hers in a braided crown. Their heads are weighed down by strings of pearls, blue jay feathers, the pearly luminesce of seashells.
Now that I am here, I join them. The other girls tell me of the woman’s promising words. She enticed them with trips to the theater, the opera, balls and tearooms. Instead, they were left here. Their only value is the length of their hair.
It becomes a comforting routine. Paddled brushes. Shiny hair. Our arms, so heavy and tired. We take turns. Gentle fingers untangle snarls of hair. I have learned that the oldest girls—the ones who have been here the longest—cannot move. Their hair anchors them down. They are arranged comfortably in sofas. They do not get out of their chairs.
“I used to have hands,” one girl whispers in the dark, “but they are hard to find now. Tell me, are they there?”
We answer. “You still have hands. They’re trapped under your hair.”
Strange men in top hats and fancy suits and shiny shoes arrive. The men stand and stare as if we are paintings or sculptures. Their eyes are soft with a desire that makes me shiver.
The woman says to them, “I decide the fate of my girls. Eyes are only allowed to do the looking here.”
A man with a camera mounted on a tripod comes. He slides in a glass plate. We are not allowed to smile. Our limbs cramp. Our bodies are statue-still. There is the flash of a camera.
When one girl tries to run away, taking a leap for the door, the woman does not try to stop her. The woman knows what I know. The girl will never make it out the door. Her hair will trip her. What skills does she have? She will fail; she will fall.
The woman likes to tell us stories. One day, she says, “You do not know the extent of a mother’s love. Someday you will understand.” She cradles her wrist like it is a bird with a broken wing. She tells us about her sister, how there was a face crusted wet with blood and bundles of hair falling in clumps to the floor.
“Here, you are protected and loved.”
And trapped, I don’t say.
Her voice croons. “Without me, where would you go?”
The woman tells us a story, her voice like falling snow. Starving wolves. Eyes like lamplight burning. Ribs sharp like the curved edges of a knife. A single match: her only protection against them. Where would she be now, if she hadn’t won?
“Remember,” she says, “I saved you. Without me, where would you be?”
We know the answer; dead or dying, out in the cold.
In her next story, the woman tells us how she walked through the woods with her sister. Her voice is deceptively soft. She says, “The man who tried to woo my sister didn’t see me until my teeth were at his throat.” I imagine it: blood staining the snow. “Once you know that kind of power,” she says, “it’s hard to let it go.”
I reel back; I see what she is now. She’s a white wolf, protecting her pups. She is wrong to keep us here. What she gives us is not love.
I am not the youngest or the oldest, but out of all of us, she likes me best. She tells me stories she doesn’t tell the others. Once, she gave me a chocolate truffle. I savored the sweetness melting on my tongue. She took it out of the box where she hides her secrets. I noticed the objects inside: a flask, an old train ticket, a pair of worn shoes, a ribbon of hair that must have been her sister’s and a glint of sharp beaks. Sewing scissors.
I tell the others about the box. I steal the scissors, hide them under a wave of hair. We wait for her to come into the room and then we go through with our plan.
Our hair unfurls like ropes. She howls like an injured wolf. Her face peeks through for a moment, but we coil our hair until it is a snare she cannot escape from. We submerge her until she is cocooned, trapped. Then, there is only silence.
The sewing scissors cut into my palm. We pass them from hand to hand until our bodies are weightless. We run. Our feet fly like wings. Finally, we are free. Where will we go? We don’t know. But we do know this: we will not mourn our hair.
by Julie Steward
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