Mom cuts our hair. We take turns sitting on an old metal stool in the kitchen while the cold edge of the scissors traces a line across our foreheads and the backs of our necks. A breeze from the kitchen window chills our wet heads, and our hair—brown and gold, each in its turn—falls in small, damp clumps into our laps. We listen to the evening wind in the darkening persimmon tree and our mother’s breathing as she works close to our faces. With her fingertips she turns our heads this way and that as though she is turning a knob. We sit still, or nearly so, fighting that old fear of the blades that snick along, cutting into our hair as though it were fabric or thread.
Our mother wears her own black hair very short, almost as short as Dad’s. Some people tell her she looks like Liza Minnelli and this seems to make her happy. Her eyes are large in her wide open face as she concentrates at the sewing table or over her needlework. We, too, wear our hair short and this, she tells us, is because we don’t yet know how to take care of it. It’s true; she has to help us in the bath, because we somehow manage to miss all the dirty parts. When we play with the shampoo Molly likes to shape her soapy hair into rabbit ears, but she squeezes her eyes closed and cries when blobs of bubbles slide down into her eyes and mouth. I make fun of her for being such a baby. When she stops, her eyelids and nose are still red, and she does look a little bit like a rabbit, then, with the white bubbles and flopping ears. Then, we pretend we are swimmers in a giant pool, swimming side by side.
We do all of this in the bath, but neither of us is very good at rubbing our scalps. When Mom comes in, she takes each of us and gives our heads a good scrubbing. Her strong fingers massage each of our heads and work the soap through our thick hair, thick enough, she always says, for three little girls.
Sometimes we pretend we have long hair. We drape kitchen and bath towels over our heads and tie them into ponytails to keep them out of our faces when we play outside on hot days. Then we feel like television stars with bionic legs or comic book powers when we run around the yard with hair streaming behind us. We pretend we wear bathing suits when we run, or we’ll get our guitars and stand on some chairs and sing “Billy, Don’t Be a Hero” while flipping our long, long hair over our shoulders.
I begin a campaign for longer hair. With a scalp full of fast growing hair, it’s a battle I know I will win eventually, but I want to win it sooner. Prell is on my side. So are Breck and Herbal Essence. But our mother believes that all beautiful women with long hair would look even more beautiful with short hair. Why hide a pretty face under all that hair, she asks. So, I tell her about the incident in the elementary bathroom. I was washing my hands when a girl from another class came up to me. Boys aren’t allowed in here, she said. The fact that I had a dress on made no difference to her; my haircut was the most convincing proof of who I was. This made a certain amount of sense to me. As a child who runs barefoot whenever possible, I know that clothes are artificial, accessories meant to signal who-knows-what to teachers and other adults; hair is a natural and spontaneous part of me, like my fingers or knees. I dried off my hands and walked away, my ears and neck burning with outrage. Still feeling insulted, I tell this story when I get home from school, but Mom does not comfort me or tell me she’s sorry, and that now, at last, I can grow my hair down to my butt. Instead, she laughs and says this girl is clearly an idiot.
Mom is right, of course. Molly and I are girls and we feel our girlness growing every day. Even though I spend my recess minutes playing basketball with Ronnie Lewis, whom I wish to dazzle with my dynamite hoop skills, and Molly likes baseball, we have dolls and bottles and baby strollers and pots and pans and dishes and a table and chairs. We play war and throw dust bombs at our brother and each other, but we also make potholders on a loom and play Jacob’s ladder with a string. We have pretend jobs as detectives and rock stars and vampires and writers. We wear dresses to church and school, but most importantly, we don’t have penises like our brother, Jason, does. Instead, we understand other things will sprout from us: breasts, babies, long hair. We understand from the lady talk in our family kitchens that some of this might be messy and painful, but we want it all.
Our mother may be unbending, but sympathy comes from an unexpected quarter. In the middle of the night on Christmas Eve, sometime after we return from midnight mass, which smells like mystery and God, Santa slides down the chimney between our room and Jason’s, and leaves two black wigs full of long hair. Molly and I spot them right away in the living room and put them on, tucking our real hair under the itchy cap and then we play with our complementary Carrie and Casey dolls, whose shining hair can be tugged out of the tops of their heads.
We look at ourselves in our bedroom mirror, Molly’s face next to mine. We stroke our new hair and try to see ourselves from all angles. I wonder whether I can wear this to school after break, if anyone will notice when I just show up with long hair. Molly can’t do it, obviously, because her real hair is so light, but mine is almost as dark as the wig. I brush the coarse bangs out of my eyes and tug at a strand that scratches my shoulder. We are beautiful at last. ***
In the backyard, autumn sunlight fell slantwise through swaying trees. Methodically partitioning the hair with a comb and hair clips, my mother-in-law, Montie, snipped away the bottommost layer of Molly’s hair, which dropped in heaps into the grass at her feet. The thinning late season light fell on Molly’s face and arms. Her belly bulged, a little higher than expected for a pregnancy. Occasionally, her long, white hand landed there, and a quick remembering blossomed in her features. Life and death side by side inside of her. She sat unnaturally still and tall to help Montie, staring straight ahead into the tree line at the north end of my property. Her skin was rose and gold, the way I expected her to look in pregnancy. But the shape of her face had changed so quickly during the past month that I would not have recognized her had I seen her unexpectedly on the street. Its outline dropped straight away from her cheekbones to the line of her jaw, and while she was not yet gaunt, she was mere pounds from it. Her blue eyes had the faraway look of someone standing on the edge of an ice-floe, one just far enough from the mainland that the leap could not be made.
She had been warned about the side effects of the chemotherapy, of course. She called me that morning to tell the story, weaved together from the best materials—the mundane facts of a morning routine, followed by shock and surprise, and, finally, humorous resignation—but her voice was tight. I woke up this morning and took a bath, she said. After drying my hair, I found a whole lot of it still in the towel.
She laughed and talked quickly, trying to put Montie at ease while she worked. Beneath everything she said was a layer of reassurance: It will look great, I know, and It’s just hair, and It was time for a change anyway. Or she talked about the baby. Montie listened but did not smile, and the hair came away in her hand like rust-colored corn silk falling away from the cob.
It did not take Montie long. She stooped over a low chair and crouched down to better see the hair at the back of my sister’s neck. When she finished, she combed through the pixie cut, lifting every section for inspection. She faced my sister, reached out with both hands, and lifted the fringe just in front of each ear, checking for symmetry. When she was satisfied, she dusted off the back of Molly’s neck with a towel and handed her a mirror.
I still see them there, the two women in the wavering green and gold backyard. A ring of red hair encircles them, and sunlight glances off the mirror and the scissors in Montie’s hand, which she slides into a black case. Molly touches the hair that just curls on her cheek and smiles. She is newly revealed from the curtain of hair she has worn since high school. Even now, I remember the shape of her head. Her eyes, framed by the fresh red bangs, were beautiful and enormous. I look like a model, she said.
After they left, John offered to rake the lawn, but I wouldn’t let him. Instead, I found a plastic bag and gathered all the hair by hand. The sounds of the neighborhood intruded as I bent over my work. Two houses away, Linda talked to someone standing in the street. Next door, the grill smoked, and Tony’s tongs rested on a plate. A couple of squirrels in the trees scolded my kittens as they crouched in the grass.
Both of my children had wept during their first haircuts, as most children do. Of course, they were afraid of the scissors blades, sharp and shining. By the time they were old enough for the barber’s chair, they had enough experience of the world to understand that some things that were good for them also hurt. Daniel cried all the way through his haircut, even with the beautician making over him, and it wasn’t till it was over that he realized this was one cutting away that wouldn’t be painful.
But I had fought tears, too, both times. Those dark strands on the floor were the last vestiges of infancy, feathery records of a shadowy, watery past that could never be recaptured. I didn’t want to lose any part of my children, even after they had outgrown these relics of babyhood.
I picked all the strands I could see out of the grass. Six or seven inches each, all of them recorded a part of Molly’s life we could never have again. At the most basic level, these were cells she would never have again. It was her last haircut, and I crawled on hands and knees through the grass, harvesting as much of it—as much of her—as I could. When I finished, I didn’t know what to do with it. I opened the bag and looked in at the mass of dark hair. I had kept curls from both of my children’s first haircuts, and placed them in envelopes that I glued into baby books. There are no such rituals for the dying. I couldn’t bury it; I couldn’t burn it or throw it away. I tucked it away, feeling vaguely guilty and strange, deep in a linen closet. ***
In late November, I pushed her through a department store in the wheelchair as she pointed the scanner gun first at a high chair and then a stroller. The air hummed with Christmas music as Mom helped her pick out a mobile and a set of crib sheets. When she turned her head to the side, I could see the scar where a screw from the old swing set punctured her head nearly twenty years ago. The skin there was as soft as a baby’s thigh. Her neck, a pale, smooth stem, rose from the collar of her coat, holding her head erect as she considered and then pointed the scanner, making decisions as comfortably as any experienced mother.
Within a few weeks of the haircut, most of her follicles stopped working. She drove into Muncie one late fall afternoon and had Montie shave the rest of it off. An assortment of wigs and caps had found its way to Molly’s home, all from well-meaning friends and friends of friends. Each offered a moment or two of contemplation, and sometimes hilarity, but she disliked them. The wigs were too luxurious in their shine and thickness, and they were hard on her scalp. She refused to wear them. Instead, she was defiantly bald and often refused to cover her head in public.
Other shoppers stared, some rudely, some out of shock. Molly didn’t seem to notice—she had other, more important things on her mind, after all. The baby was growing and a shower had been planned for the middle of December. My parents had bought a more comfortable house for them to live in, so she and Jim had moved out of the rental. And then, of course, there were but the constant demands of her illness: Prescriptions to be paid for and filled; visits to the gynecologist and oncologist; fallout from the chemotherapy. She didn’t care a straw about the stares, but I did. I glared at each of these idiots over the top of my sister’s head, searching out their rude, prying eyes and pushed back with my own until they turned away. I resented their curiosity and hated them for their happy holidays and body fat and thick Midwestern heads of hair.
The guilt of my health had begun to weigh on me. My children were no longer toddlers, and I had begun to put on some of the weight I lost while carrying and chasing after them for hours on end, year after year. My nails were short but strong with pink beds. My twenties were fraught with minor but chronic gynecological problems that seemed to be ebbing away, and I had never in my adult life felt better. The proof was in the hair that curled on my shoulders, a gleaming rebuke to my sister. I stood beneath it, pulling it from my face, lifting it off of my neck in her too-warm home, where she sat day after day huddled in fleece and blankets as her body fat melted away. A desperate light down covered her skin now, which I could see when she was silhouetted against the dim lamp in her living room. I sat beside her which she crocheted, feeling traitorous and vulgar.
I don’t remember exactly when I cut my hair, but I know Montie did not want to do it. She had shaved Molly’s hair, one of the most difficult hours she ever spent as a hairdresser, and seemed reluctant to cut mine away, but she did it without a word. Hanks and curls and trimmings fell to the salon floor. In the mirror, my eyes grew bigger and my face assumed more definite dimensions as it emerged from the dark cloud of hair I had amassed over the years. The family resemblance to Molly was evident once again as the hair was stripped away, especially around my mouth and chin. Before I left, the other hairdressers and patrons in the salon made over me the way women do. Dramatic haircuts seem heroic when femininity is at stake. During that afternoon, they had watched out of the corners of their eyes while Montie worked, and their expressions were guarded until my hair was dried and styled and I was presented to them as a woman still.
Walking the car, I had to hunch my shoulders when the winter wind found my ears and neck, but I felt better about myself than I had in awhile. I felt, for the moment, lighter and liberated of the old, older sister guilt—now the healthier sister guilt. Like Jo in Little Women, I had made a sacrifice of sorts.
I drove straight to Molly’s house that afternoon. Jim, weary from his labors at home and work, let me in the front door and I found my sister crocheting in the living room. As soon as she saw me, she stood unsteadily and reached for my head. Your hair, she said. Why did you cut your hair? She did not tell me how good I looked or how glad she was that I did it; she was upset, and I found I could not answer for my heroics. I asked her to sit down and she did, with visible relief. She picked up the can of Ensure on the end table with a spidery hand and took a slow sip. I touched the back of my naked neck and my face burned with shame.
During a breath-stealing January day, full of wind and worse weather to follow, a list of canceled after-school practices and evening church services scrolled by on the television screen. The furnace breathed through the vents, and food steamed in the crock pot. After starting another load of laundry in the washer, I sat beside Molly on her sofa and folded clothes. As she worked the silver crochet needle in and out of a doily, the tight skin over her knuckles looked paper-thin and slightly shiny, the way the women of our family wear their skin as they age. Each motion, as she twisted the crochet needle or pulled on the ball of thread, seemed to require thought and conscious effort.
At first she talked about her visit to the hospital earlier in the day. The baby was growing, she said. He might even get to come home early. She was quiet a minute and looked at me as I tugged a dishtowel from the laundry basket. One of the worst things is that I don’t feel like a woman anymore, she said. She cried a little then, her face pinking up. I put the laundry aside, feeling as though I had been struck, and asked her what she meant. But I knew. It wasn’t just the hair. In a few months’ time, her breasts had melted away. Her bones seemed to clack together when I hugged her. Even my mouth is sore, she said. She opened wide to reveal the raw bumps on the back of her tongue. I put my arms around her. Out of the corner of my eye, I could just see the nursery where the bed skirt of the new crib fluttered with the furnace’s sighs. The changing table was assembled and the toys in the mobile dangled from their strings, waiting for Jesse to come home. I held my younger sister, feeling her shoulder blades and ribs against my palms. She had been a mother for only a few weeks, but she had aged fifty years in less than four months. She could have been our Grandma Benner with her wonderful crows’ feet and jutting cheekbones. She could be our mother some twenty years hence.
She was beautiful. I wanted to tell her this—how delicate the turn of her collarbone was, how perfectly her ears were nestled against the fine skin of her scalp, how well constructed her bones were, and how, until now, no one but our parents who saw her the day she was born, knew these things about her. And she had done the most womanly, heroic thing I had ever witnessed in giving up all that she had—what little she had left of herself to give—for her baby.
The wind took a sharp turn around the house. Molly pulled away, her white head unsteady on her corded neck, and suddenly I felt as though I had been left behind. She took a breath and dabbed at the corners of her mouth—a side-effect of the oral morphine—with a tissue she kept in her cardigan pocket. Then she took up the crochet hook and thread and continued where she left off, automatically pulling loop through loop through loop of hair-thin thread into fine white chains that spilled from her fingers.
Elizabeth M. Dalton‘s fiction and poetry have appeared in a number of journals, including Earth’s Daughters, River City, Ellipsis: Literature and Art, and Flying Island. She received an Indiana Arts Commission Individual Artist Project grant to develop drafts of some of the essays in Burying Molly.