The Taste of Hair
They always liked her hair the best. Fine, white-blonde curls that corkscrewed from her head and circled her face like a halo. Hannah never saw anything admirable about those curls, not even when she stood in her pajamas in front of the bathroom mirror and stretched them out one by one, letting go and watching them spring back to their unnatural shape, refusing to change. They grew as if something on the inside of her head was broken, forcing her hair to come out twisted and wrong.
At night under the covers she yanked individual strands from her head and studied them by flashlight, trying to understand what made them so alluring. No matter how much she pulled or wadded or tied them in knots or rubbed them vigorously between her palms, they stubbornly bounced back into tight spirals as soon as she let go. Sometimes she placed a few strands on her tongue, rolled them around in her mouth, relishing their roughness on her palate and the slightly bitter taste of shampoo.
She’d tried to straighten them before. After a bath, she’d emptied an entire can of her mother’s hairspray into them and then blow-dried them, pulling them straight under the hot air, tugging so hard her scalp stung. She’d slept with them squashed flat between heavy books, Webster’s Dictionary and the Encyclopedia Britannica, K through M. She’d even tried ironing them once, her cheek pressed against the floral fabric of the ironing board while a burning stench rose on white puffs of steam.
After that, she took to wearing a pink and brown stocking cap everywhere she went, even to bed. Her mother wrinkled her nose at the sight of that cap at the breakfast table, its weave reducing Hannah’s nimbus of curls to a mere fringe around her neck. “Don’t you think it’s time you took that filthy thing off and washed it?” she asked. “No,” Hannah replied around a spoonful of cornflakes.
At the hospital they tried to coax her into taking off the cap, but Hannah refused. She knew what they wanted, to free her curls and make them spill across the white pillowcase so moms and dads and aunts and grandmothers could brush them off her forehead and rake them into cornrows with their fingers. She knew they fixated on her hair so they wouldn’t have to think about the bandage on her abdomen, the tight, hot gash underneath, and what the doctors had pulled out of there. She saw herself reflected in their eyes, pale and thin, like an emaciated ghost under the hospital lights, and she turned away, not wanting visitors.
They sent in a man, a tall, skinny man with a steel-gray beard that grew perfectly straight, like pins sticking out of his chin. He sat down in the chair next to her bed. Hannah watched him remove his black wool cap, exposing a nearly bald head underneath, and she waited for him to insist that she do the same. Instead, he reached into the pocket of his white coat and pulled out a small jar, which he set on the table between them.
“Do you know what this is, Hannah?”
Her eyes locked on the jar in fascination. Strand after fine strand of her own hair twisted and matted together inside, forming a nest the size of an adult fist, so dense she could imagine a family of mice curling up in it for warmth. It looked as though it had grown on its own, down in the depths of her stomach, as if only some of her hair had pushed its way out of her scalp and the rest had coiled inward, wrapping around itself like a snarled, hairy secret.
“And how did this come to be inside your stomach?”
She didn’t answer, because there was no point in saying anything but the truth, and there was no point in saying the truth because the truth was obvious. He continued to ask questions, but she ignored him, absorbed at the sight of the thing she had grown inside her, now turned out of her body. Her bony fingers wandered absently to the hair at her neck and toyed with one of the curls there.
When the time came to leave, the man moved to collect the jar from the table, but Hannah laid a nearly translucent hand on his wrist. “What is it?” he asked.
She pointed to the jar.
“Can I have that?”
Looking at the jar was like getting a sneak peek at the guts and organs that peopled her insides; it was a grotesque sight she couldn’t turn away from. The hair was recognizably hers, yet it was different, its color dulled, its springiness gone limp, as if it had undergone some rare alchemical process, the transmutation of gold into lead. A simple trip through her digestive system had finally wrought the change she had tried and failed to impose upon her hair.
People came, doctors, nurses, her mother with worried eyes. She bore these visits impatiently, willing them to leave so she could return to her newest pastime. She hid the jar under her pillow when they came, pulling it out again only when she heard their footsteps recede down the hall.
As she examined the thing, the hair thing she’d made without even meaning to, her hand wandered thoughtfully to the hair that was still on her head. Her fingers twisted themselves up in one of its curls, and yanked. Her mouth opened to receive the strands, which she rolled around on her tongue for a while, noting their faintly antiseptic taste, before contracting her throat and forcing them down her esophagus to her stomach, where no one could exclaim how pretty they were and no pink and brown cap would be needed to keep them hidden and no grown-up’s rough hands would ever touch them again.
| COPYRIGHT 2006-2011
Portland Fiction Project
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