The boy’s mother is sick and has lost all her hair. In solidarity, he decides to cut his off too. He thinks this is the least a son can do for a sick mother. The first person he tells is his girlfriend of one year. I’m going to donate my hair to my mother, he says, and is worried to see tears rise in her eyes. She had told him soon after they met that the first thing she liked about him was his shoulder-length hair, how it lay wild and free on top of his head, caused people on the street to glance back at them when they walked anywhere together. The boy worries that she is actually horrified at the idea of him cutting off his hair. But it’s my mother, he thinks to himself, it’s my choice. Before he can make a case the girl, a nice girl from a middle-class family who knows how to drop meaningful hints coyly (my parents are looking for a boy for me) finally says, I think cutting your hair for aunty would be a wonderful thing to do.
The mother is in bed with the smooth baldness of her newly shaved scalp, a scarf loosely draped across her neck. She does not know her son has gone to donate his hair, and is not the sort of mother who would approve if she did know. She does not believe one person being ill is the reason for another to act ill. And anyway, if she did know, she would have had enough faith in the girl to stop her son. She likes the girl. She thinks she is a good choice for her son, and maybe in a few years they will marry but the mother does not know if she will be alive for the wedding. A pure-cut line of steel runs through the mother and she knows the world moves on and on, so there is no need for theatrics, no need really for anything while she is so tired and in bed, staring up at the ceiling for hours on end, something she has only recently discovered is strangely meditative. Odd now to think that when her husband built the house she found the textured cream paint a little creepy, even said so to him then, The texture is a little creepy, a statement which the husband in his usual overbearing style, overrode. But now she understands why he chose the paint, maybe. It’s easy for her to fall asleep while trying to follow the pattern it makes on the ceiling.
The salon is unisex. The boy and girl unclasp their hands when they enter and the boy explains at the counter what he wants. He says, I want to make sure my hair can be donated. His hair is tied up in the usual bun and he loosens it when he talks so the curls fall to his shoulders. I want it to be a wig for my mother. The woman behind the counter calls her associate’s name and they descend on the boy and touch his head gently, with some sadness, as if he is their pet and they are about to say goodbye. Behind them, the girl stands with her own long, straight hair shining down her back, almost down to her knees. She rubs her arms as if she is cold, feels herself rising to the middle of this story and floating in the very center of it.
The husband watches the wife sleep. The house is nicest whenever she is asleep because he worries less about her and knows for a fact that she is resting, and for a little while at least he manages to forget that she is dying. This is more bearable than watching her lie awake and worry about dying. The husband is unsure if he has loved anyone in his life, at least in the way he thought he would love when he was younger, but now he thinks that maybe this is what love is supposed to be; you build a life around a person and when they threaten to go, you worry and worry that they will take you with them. If this is it, then he would prefer to go back to being a stranger to his wife.
The hairdresser winds his fingers through the boy’s hair. He stretches out the curls, wets them with a spray bottle and combs through the hair with his fingers again. The boy looks at the man’s face. Will it be possible? he asks. The man tries hard to look matter-of-fact, I’m sorry, he says, your hair has to be at least twelve inches long when the length is taken from the nape of your neck.
The girl feels her heart squeeze. The thing is – the thing is, she knows already that she wants to be with the boy, and while mostly her heart is compassionate for his family, some part of her is also thinking about how to make sure the boy will stay with her, This is my time, she thinks. The boy is nineteen years old this year, and like most nineteen-year-old boys seems not to know what he is doing and the girl is worried. She is eighteen, almost nineteen, and most of her friends are dating the men they believe they will marry. Surely a man she is here for right now in the most impossible moment of his life will want her by his side forever, the girl thinks. She rearranges her face so that it resembles a scissor, like something about to cut herself or the boy, and says, I’ll do it. The boy looks at the girl’s hair and says, You don’t have to do this, but it is weak. They switch chairs and the hairdresser is swishing the towel around the girl’s neck and spraying her hair with water and tying it in a ponytail at the nape of her neck.
Are you ready? he asks and she nods. Then he cuts it all off in two quick strokes. She closes her eyes for a second, but really she feels like a saint. She feels quite amazing, as if she has finally transcended petty relationships and is now in the midst of the truest, greatest love she is capable of.
The watching boy realizes he has made a big mistake. She looks terrible.
The wife does not open her eyes even though she feels she must get up soon to cook. She drifts in and out of consciousness during the day and the night, which the doctor had said was quite common at their last appointment, but even so it is easy to imagine that she will be better after this day passes. Maybe even in a few moments. I would love daal chawal, she says sleepily, actually wanting to get up and make it herself but her husband sitting by her side stands quickly. If you’ll just go back to sleep, he pleads, I’ll make it for you. He heads to the kitchen and pulls down the lentils from the top cupboard, pulls out the rice and looks at the two things for a moment. He wishes for a second that his son was home. It would be so lovely to have him here, both of them healthy and men, which sometimes feels like the natural order of things or if not the natural order of things at least some order of things.
The girl feels freer with the short hair. The hairdresser has not let the cut hair fall to the ground. He is still holding it in his fist so it descends like a black ribbon toward the floor. It can’t touch the floor, he says, that’s a no-no for wigs. We’ll send it away and they’ll mail you the wig in a week. The girl looks in the mirror at the boy’s face and he seems ashen, absolutely wrecked, and again the girl feels triumphant. This is it, she thinks, what a small sacrifice for him to fall in love with me! The girl bargains in her head all the time about the boy – if I do this he will do that, and if I do that he will do this – so sometimes it can feel like he is lodged like a small, sharp rock in her head. The haircut has made his presence in her head lighter, as if a little bit of him has also been cut away with her hair.
The hairdresser puts the hair on a shelf, labels it with the boy’s mother’s name and he comes back to the girl. Her hair looks uneven. Would you like a bob-cut? he asks and she says, Sure. Riding on her high, she decides to try something fun. She gets an asymmetrical bob with the longer side touching her chin and the other side riding up to her ear. She does look a little experimental, like someone who could break up with the boy now, like she could live alone for a few years. The hairdresser asks if he can take a picture of her and she says, Yes, so he takes the towel off and swivels her around and uses a phone to take a picture. You’ll find this online by this evening, he says and the girl beams. The girl and the boy hold hands out of the salon, their path lit up by the smiles of the salon staff.
Actually, the boy’s hand feels like it is crawling with ants. These ants are coming out of his pores to protest. The girl looks horrible, he thinks, and he remembers how last night he had kissed her on her stomach and her back had arched a little off the bed and when it did her hair had lain thick under her, half on the mattress and half stuck to her spine, where he had brushed it off carelessly. The thing is the boy knows it is a terrible thing to like people based on their looks, and she is an amazing person. Which is worse, he wonders, to like someone less because they are ugly, or because they have become better than you during what is supposed to be the most character-building, mother-losing year of your life?
He decides while they drive home and as he takes sidelong glances at her, that he could like it more if it was a symmetrical bob. As if on cue she asks, Do you think it’s too experimental?
The mother wakes and through a haze she can see her son and her husband and the girl standing there. The girl looks younger somehow. The husband is holding an entire plate of food and the smell of the food makes the mother sick. She turns on her side and vomits. I don’t think your mother likes my hair, the girl says.
It looks great, the boy’s father tells the girl, still holding the plate. Yes, the boy lies, it does. All three of them reach for the wastepaper basket filled with the vomit but none of them actually touch it. The mother pants, spent, on the bed.
That night the boy drives the girl back to her house. The maid opens the main door and avoids looking at the boy. The house staff is supposed to pretend the girl is pure and does not do anything with the boy except go out to public places and eat. The girl’s parents pretend this too, or at least the mother does, and later she tells the girl’s father, She will never get married if we keep her locked up in the house. Things have changed, and our daughter knows her limits.
The boy says hello to the girl’s mother who is standing near the kitchen and the mother says hello back normally, but then her gaze falls on her daughter and she lets out a small scream, What did you do? The girl hesitates for a second, then speaks quickly, shyly, His mother needed a wig, and the mother, who is smart, understands why the daughter has done this, tries to redo her reaction so that she seems proud to have a daughter who can give this sort of sacrifice for the man she wants to be with, but really, the mother also feels immeasurably sad. All that long, beautiful hair.
The girl’s hair is sent to a wig-maker in the middle of the city who threads each strand so it bands together again, coheres into a new shape for the recipient. The wig-maker reads the file of the recipient of the wig: 62; housewife. Sixty-two-year-olds like layers in their hair, he thinks so he cuts in a few layers and then gently puts the wig in crêpe paper, lays it down in a wooden box filled with small spheres of styrofoam. He tapes the box shut and presses on the address label.
The next day the boy kisses the girl on the lips when she is visiting his house. How’s your mother? she asks when they are alone in his room and he says, Good, and then he kisses her again. When he puts his face near the side of the bob that is shorter, he feels as if something is missing, as if he is going out with a person without a limb.
I love this, he says and keeps kissing her, kisses her neck, easier to reach now, and she leans up and kisses him back. His parents are asleep in the other room so she bites his shoulder to keep from crying out during sex. Later when she sleeps, her shoulders and neck remain damp. He quietly gets out of bed and he takes scissors from his drawer. She is turned onto the side of her face with the shorter hair length. He lifts the longer hair from off her face and cuts it, taking care to hold the cut strands so they don’t fall back on her face and wake her. The moment he cuts her hair he feels that deep satisfaction that only comes from having made something even again. She does look slightly better, though he’s done a messy job. This is fine, he thinks, it will grow back. He throws the hair he has cut into the bin.
After throwing out the hair, the boy goes to his parents’ room. The two of them are playing cards, though the mother has to be prompted to make a move by the father. Your turn, the father says every few minutes and the mother stares at him blankly before saying, Oh yes, and concentrating hard on the hand that she has been dealt. Okay, the boy thinks sitting on the bed with his parents, They’re fine.
How is the girl? the father asks and the boy says, Good, good, good, three times in quick succession. He leaves to go back and watch the girl sleep.
Is this how sociopaths behave? He thinks about this while she is asleep and wonders if he could kill her if he had to and he thinks the answer is no, though you never know how you will react to things. This is the first girl he has ever slept with and he has cut her hair without permission. Who knows what else is inside him: a person who beats up women, a person who actually wants his mother to die now, a person who often wakes up thinking enough is enough.
The girl wakes and flies at him. She is ready to kill him: Are You Insane? and the father comes running: Why are you disturbing your moth— but he doesn’t have time to finish his sentence because he is struck by his son’s girlfriend’s crying face and the fact that one side of her head looks as if someone has shorn a plant with little care. She looks like a small child who has been deliberately wounded. Suddenly, the father remembers again that he wanted to marry someone else when he was younger, a woman who lived nearby but his own mother at the time had said no, presenting instead this wife who he does love now and the father thinks that maybe this is what happens, we run circles around each other as a family, young old young, and here is his son in the middle of losing someone like he was once in the middle of losing someone and how they are both losing the mother young old young.
From the other room the mother calls and the girl leaves, still wailing. Without a word to each other the father and son present themselves to the dying woman and say, Everything is fine, You should go back to sleep.
The girl goes back home and falls into her mother’s arms who says, What happened? but not before running her hand over the girl’s head. This is the thing, the mother says, you gave him too much power, and the girl says, What power? And the mother who knows that the daughter will have to cobble together a dynamite personality one day to get through life successfully – remember if Mohammed cannot go to the mountain the mountain will come to Mohammed, the winner is always a man named Mohammed – but her poor baby, My poor baby, she says. She cradles her daughter’s head in her lap and says softly, It will grow back, as if hearts are things that grow back and men are roots you can pull out of the ground and toss away.
The wig arrives at the house on a day when the father and the son are home and the mother is feeling better. The father brings in the box and puts it on the bed and carefully cuts the tape on the carton with a little razor blade, sets that aside and opens the box, pushes aside the crêpe paper. He moves the box onto the mother’s lap. With a cry of delight the mother lifts up the wig with her bruised hands. It’s beautiful, she says patting the hair, Oh, it really is beautiful. She begins to cry and tells the boy, You must call her and tell her she is beautiful. She takes off her scarf and fixes the wig on her head and by the doorway, her son leans against the door. For a second the only thing the room consists of is how happy his mother is.
When they bury her, they bury her with the wig. The girl does not come to the funeral, having transcended the relationship enough by then to be telling her friends I was dating a psychopath.
The boy even calls the girl and tells her about the funeral before it happens, but she hmms and haws having discovered some hardness in the story, some new asphalt to coast on. She is learning that she does not want to settle into adulthood with nothing to show for her youth except some pictures of herself in varying poses with hair at different lengths. Here it is long, here it is short, here it is gone and now it’s back again. She is learning not to be kind for the sake of being kind and her mother is sad about this hardness that has arisen in her daughter, but you cannot unlearn a lesson, and her daughter is already practicing how to wield this lesson in the world.
The boy breathes a sigh of relief immediately after the funeral and wonders about all the paths to tragedy. For example, the hair was dead when it became a wig and for a while, in-between, when she got better for a week, his mother used to hang it up on the coatrack carefully at night and he would imagine that because it was dead hair, it would soon begin to fall, strand by strand onto the floor.
By now, the boy thinks after a month has passed, it must be caked in mud so many feet deep in the ground, damp and splitting. Or maybe if he and his father dug up the grave in a year’s time there would be nothing there at all except the hair once given from a woman to a woman, still long, shining and straight, also some bones.
The girl’s hair grows. She oils it with coconut oil nightly, sometimes uses yogurt and fenugreek. It grows down her back, and for her wedding three years later she has it up in a princess braid, pinned a thousand different ways so her husband has to spend the first two hours of their wedding night helping her take it out. It crackles hard with hairspray underneath her when they lie in bed together, too tired to touch. When they divorce three years later, she cuts it off, so it looks like a boy’s, dyes it bright red so people say, This is what happens, in whispers behind her back. She travels soon after, the dye fading now in the short stumpy hair, feeling invisible and light.
The hair is just touching her shoulders when she meets someone again. It grows faster than it has ever grown when she is in love and happy, when she is pregnant with her first daughter.
The girl and her husband shave their daughter’s head four days after the birth. Her husband holds the baby’s head as if it is a bird, the blade sharp and keen across the soft malleable temple.
When the girl breastfeeds her daughter, her hair begins to turn white, as if the baby is leeching the color out, and soon it is falling in thick clumps and sticking to the shower drain. Pregnancy hair is short-lived, a friend – a mother three times over by then – tells her on the phone. The girl cuts it off again. Then it grows slowly. She lets it wisp onwards for years, through new jobs, illnesses, nights spent lying awake, her mother’s death, and then begins to dye it black. She asks her daughter if she looks like Madonna, young old young, and the daughter (now a teen) says, Who is Madonna?
When the girl dies, it is this daughter who bathes her, who curls shampoo into the soft wrinkles set deep in her mother’s still scalp. Hope is always a daughter with an unbroken heart. In the distance the line of mountains snakes on across the horizon and reaches singing for the women too.
Artwork © Tabitha Moses, Hairpurse, 2004, Photograph: Harriet Hall