The cable has gone out again. The witch complains for a while, jiggling wires and prodding buttons and smacking the top of the TV with her hand. Then she falls asleep on the couch, her nose in the air, snoring faintly. One hand cups her stomach; the other hangs free, brushing the tangled carpet of hair that covers the floor. In her youth, her hair was raven-black, as any good witch’s ought to be, but now it’s threaded with silver. Her daughter’s hair would be gold, but, unwashed and uncombed, it’s a dull matted brown.
Her daughter comes in and finds her there. She shakes her head and shuts off the fizzing TV. She’s been out on the balcony, practicing her singing. She practices for hours every day. She knows that if she can just sing loud enough and long enough, if she can remember to use proper breath support and relax her jaw, he’ll hear her. He’ll cup a hand to his ear and come riding through the forest on his white steed, trampling wildflowers and slashing through brambles in his haste to reach her. He’ll come and take her away from here. Any day now. But so far, all she’s done is startle the pigeons off the roof.
This is a very old story. You know some of it already. The tower is full of hair. Some of it is the witch’s hair, and some of it is her daughter’s, dark strands and light intertwined beyond any hope of separation. The floor is carpeted with hair; it covers the windows and coats the rough stucco walls like the piebald fur of a very large and ill-kempt beast. It’s easy to get tangled in the labyrinth that twists around doorknobs and hangs from chandeliers, circles table legs and curtain rods and the knobs on the kitchen faucet.
But they’ve found ways to adjust. They lift up their skirts to tiptoe daintily through webs and nets and tripwires of hair. They coordinate their movements carefully, because a step in the wrong direction means a painful tug on the scalp. They have just enough freedom to walk from bathroom to bedroom to kitchen and back. The beds they sleep on are wrapped in layers of hair. At one point they were shampooing the mattresses regularly, but eventually they gave it up as too much work.
When the witch first came here, she had all kinds of grandiose plans for magical experiments that no one had tried for hundreds of years. But of course that was before the hair became such a problem. She always says that one of these days she’ll go back down the stairs and out to the herb garden and collect some ingredients for potions. As soon as she works out the worst of the knots and tangles, as soon as she gets enough hair free to reach all the way to the ground. But no matter how careful she is, it always seems to get snagged on something else before long. If only she could cut it. But it doesn’t work that way.
She keeps telling her daughter that this is only temporary. She’ll get them out, not to worry. But her daughter knows better by now.
The tower is far from civilization, out in the middle of a forest. They have their groceries delivered. The delivery person always comes up the stairs and leaves the brown paper bags just outside the inner door. Looking down from her great height as the van drives away, the witch’s daughter has never been able to tell if it’s a man or a woman under the red cap with the yellow logo on it.
As far as their inner sanctum itself: nobody ever comes out, and nobody ever goes in.
Nobody ever comes out, and nobody ever goes in. Well, except for the electrician. This is why the electrician is so important. He’s coming to fix the wiring in the walls, because all the bulbs have started flickering at random intervals and startling the witch as she dozes on the couch, and the TV keeps shutting off just as the game show contestants are shouting out the answer. It’s bad enough that the cable only works half the time. (There are many versions of this story; in some of them, it’s a cable repairman who comes to the tower.)
In any case: the electrician, so the witch has seen in her crystal ball, is young, and male, and perhaps even handsome. The electrician will change everything for her daughter.
The witch’s daughter is skeptical when her mother explains this to her. She didn’t get to see the image in the crystal ball. Until now, she wouldn’t have said her mother remembered how to work it. It hasn’t been moved from the desk where it sits in years, and snarls of hair have built up around the base.
An electrician isn’t exactly a prince, she says, moving her chair closer to the kitchen table, but not close enough, because hair is dragging at the legs. She takes a bite of garlic bread, littering the tabletop with crumbs. She tries to brush them away. Anyway, she goes on, what interest could he possibly have in me?
Nonsense, says the witch. You’re a very pretty girl. And so kind, and so talented, and you embroider so beautifully. And that voice! Of course he’ll fall in love with you immediately. It’s destiny, my darling. The stars are aligned. I’ll show you my charts, if you like.
The witch’s daughter nods. She could believe this. This is not completely outside the realm of plausibility. Fruit flies buzz around the dirty dishes in the sink.
But what about you, mother? she asks. There’s no one for you to fall in love with. Who’s going to take you out of this tower? There won’t be room on the white horse for both of us, I don’t think, and all that galloping won’t be good for your back.
Never mind about that, says the witch. Mothers live for their daughters’ happiness; their own is nothing to them. You’ll understand when you have children yourself.
The witch rolls spaghetti around her fork, spattering drops of orange sauce on the tablecloth. Yes, yes, she says. He’s the one. Now everything will change for us. You’ll have to make yourself beautiful for him. Why don’t we wax our legs? I’ve always wanted to try it.
She has to believe it, doesn’t she? This is how the story goes. Any day now he will come and save her, he will put her in a nicer tower, he will shampoo her hair until it gleams and brush out all the tangles with a thousand strokes of his brush. She will be so happy.
The witch is not her real mother, of course. It’s obvious when you think about it. They have so little in common. Only the hair. And the tower. The witch stole her away from a kind-hearted farming couple who trespassed one day in her vegetable garden. The witch had a vegetable garden then, hard as it is to imagine now. In any case, it’s clear the daughter doesn’t belong here. She should be outside, picking apples and running through cornfields and tossing handfuls of hay that catch in her sisters’ hair.
The witch is her mother. Naturally she is. Look at the arches of their noses, the curves of their earlobes (detached). And of course the hair. It’s a genetic disorder, passed down from mother to daughter. How else would you explain it?
You could explain it this way: it’s no natural mutation. It’s a condition that only magic could create. Exposure to incantations in the womb. The tragedy is that it struck them both, when clearly it was intended only for the witch. Now neither of them can leave the tower. But at least they have each other. The witch would be so lonely if not for her daughter.
The witch and her daughter have been waiting anxiously all day, but finally it’s time. The sound of the doorbell is clanging throughout the tower. The witch’s daughter’s heart flutters in her chest, and her cheeks are flushed. She’s put on her most beautiful blue dress, stepping into it through the neck, because she can’t pull anything on over her head. Her mother watches, eyes sparkling with approval.
Go on, she says. You should be the one to open the door. She makes a shooing motion and smiles a just-between-us smile. Then she retreats to the bedroom, where her breathing can be heard through the keyhole. Outside the window, birds are chirping.
The witch’s daughter is a friend to birds. It’s not that she has any particular saintly aura that attracts them; it’s just that they’ve had a long time to get to know each other. And sometimes she feeds them sesame seeds. All sorts of birds come to visit the tower. Robins and little brown sparrows perch on the windowsills; swallows build their nests on the roof. Swans and wild geese and hawks in flight nod to the witch’s daughter as they pass. Sometimes a seagull even stops by, on a salt breeze from the west. They bring her news of the world, tell her of places she’s never seen, and she leans out over the balcony railing longingly, eating up the words.
But you’ve heard all this before. You know how she stands at the window, how her hands open and close around the sill, how tiny brown claws pinch the flesh of her palms. How she sings, because any day now he’ll come and save her, he has to, she doesn’t know what she’ll do otherwise. She has read all the books in the tower three times over, even the self-help books.
The electrician: is every bit as handsome as her mother said. Well, maybe his nose is a little too short and his eyes a little too far apart, but that’s all right. She’s nothing if not flexible. He has a tool belt and a grey toolbox and a polo shirt with a tiny horse embroidered on the breast pocket. Not a white horse: still, it must be a sign.
He blanches when he sees the inside of the tower, and the witch’s daughter wonders if he has any idea of his part in this drama. As he climbed the stairs, did he see the tendrils of hair growing out through the crack under the door, clinging to the round stone walls like ivy? Did he sense that this was no ordinary service call, that this was a place where he was desperately needed?
The witch’s daughter, as she considers this, grows more and more embarrassed by the tower. The ceilings are water-damaged and crumbling. Long clumps of dust trail on the floor, catching on the skeins of hair. The drains are clogged. The kitchen smells sickly sweet like mold, and there’s mildew growing in slick patches on the bathroom walls. The television is blaring an infomercial she could recite word for word. And what a picture she herself must make: a girl (beautiful?) with her hair trailing down loose and disappearing into the landscape behind her.
I’m sorry about the mess, she says tentatively. My mother and I don’t get a lot of visitors.
That’s okay. I’m kind of a slob myself, he adds, with a nervous laugh.
Her heart lifts. They have something in common.
He shifts uncomfortably. So, what seems to be the problem? He takes a step forward to set his toolbox down on the floor and almost trips over a rope of hair at ankle height. She catches him by the elbows and sets him upright. For a moment their faces are very close together. She holds his gaze a moment too long.
Thanks, he says. Clumsy of me.
Anyway, she says, blushing as she plucks a few strands of hair off a porcelain figurine, our lights have been flickering. And some of the outlets aren’t working.
Okay, he says, in his element now. Well, the first thing we always check for is burned-out light bulbs.
Oh, we tried that, she says. They had the bulbs delivered specially. The witch’s daughter spent an afternoon climbing on chairs to replace the old ones while her mother flipped the switches ineffectually on and off.
At his request, she leads him around the tower, pointing out faulty lights and outlets. It doesn’t take long: kitchen, living room, bathroom. She omits the bedroom for now. Then he asks where the circuit breakers are, and she shows him the metal box on the living room wall, just next to the front door. It’s overgrown with hair, and he has to untangle it before he can get the cover open.
She hovers behind him anxiously. From the bedroom, she hears a stifled cough.
Would you like some tea or something? she asks. Her mother raised her with good manners.
He looks up at her and smiles. Sure, that’d be great, he says. He has a nice smile. One of his front teeth is a little bit crooked, but it gives his face character. He could be the one. It’s not outside the realm of possibility.
She fishes a stray hair out of the teacup and brings it to him on a saucer, walking with the utmost care.
Thanks, he says, setting it on the fuzzy floor beside his toolbox.
How’s it looking? she asks, twisting her hands together. He finally has the cover open and is brushing black and gold strands out of the way like cobwebs.
Well, he says, flicking switches one by one so that all the lights in the tower blink off and on, I’m not sure yet. But if you’ve got flickering lights all over, it could be power arcing. That could be serious. You can get a fire that way. And I’d imagine this place is already sort of a fire hazard, because of the…
He trails off, waving an awkward hand to indicate the room.
She nods and goes to the kitchen to pour herself some tea. The water’s cooled off, so she turns the burner on again, and a stray spark catches a hair. The whole place goes up, just like that, flames licking greedily up the walls. She stands there transfixed, her face turned to the ceiling as brilliant roaring orange and gold washes across it, as the smoke pours out to choke her lungs. Years later her charcoal corpse and the electrician’s will be found wrapped in an embrace, the force of destiny pulling them to each other at the end, as irresistibly as the tides are pulled by the moon.
All three of them perish.
Or none of that, if you prefer. He sips his tea and takes out a small yellow and black device like a calculator. He goes around the living room pointing it at outlets and frowning.
There’s an outlet in the bedroom, too, she says. Do you want to see?
He hesitates for a moment. Sure, he says, and follows her. She remembers too late about her mother, but fortunately the witch has slipped out discreetly and is now hiding in the bathroom.
The witch’s daughter can barely breathe as she follows the electrician through the bedroom door. She looks at the two beds with the strands of hair hanging down between them. Anything could happen. It’s a good thing she waxed her legs. He has a light brown mole on the back of his neck. She imagines kissing that mole every morning as they wake up wrapped in each other’s arms, in some other room, far away.
He points his device at the outlet and then shakes his head. He goes over to the piano in the corner (there’s no room for it in the living room) and brushes the top with his hand.
Nice, he says. Do you play?
I used to, she says, blushing. It doesn’t really work anymore.
The hair has gotten tangled around all the strings and hammers inside, muffling them to inaudibility. The bookshelf on the wall is full of drooping scores, some water-stained, the covers turning light brown with age. They haven’t been touched in years.
The electrician looks up at the ceiling with its ornate carvings of cherubs barely visible in the corners. This could be a really nice place, he says. Then he adds, rubbing at his hair, if you just cleaned it up a little. You know, got rid of some of this—
She ducks her head and sighs. I know, she says.
Why don’t you just cut it? he asks. Are you going for a world record, or something?
It’s not that simple, she says. It’s hard. It hurts.
This is inadequate. But how can she explain it to him, how the hair is alive, quivering with nerve endings, how she feels even the feet of the birds who sometimes fly in through the window, tiny vibrations that travel all the way down the strands and up the back of her skull? How she has tried. It’s like hacking off an arm. Or you can do it slowly, one strand at a time, but by the time you’ve snapped fifty strands, new hairs are already growing to take their place. She thinks her mother tried, too, when she was younger.
But he smiles. It can’t be that bad, he says. And anyway, you’d only have to do it once, right?
No, no, she says. It keeps growing, don’t you see? I’d have to do it over and over again. It’s just too much. Impossible.
Oh, he says. Well, that’s too bad. Still, nothing’s impossible, right? You just have to want it bad enough. It’s all about attitude, you know? He laughs. If you don’t believe you can do it, then of course you never will.
The witch’s daughter used to lie in bed at night and pray to her hair, her eyes squeezed shut, her teeth gritted. Just stop growing, she would plead. Or slow down. I’d settle for that. Please, just stop. She knew it was her own fault, that she wasn’t trying hard enough. She promised herself again and again that the next day she’d have the will to cut it. But she was never strong enough.
She’s sure the electrician has a point, but she can’t help being annoyed with him anyway.
They go back out into the living room. The electrician shakes his head. His hair, light brown and curly, flops against his ears.
I don’t know, he says. I just can’t imagine living like this. I mean, don’t you ever want to just…I don’t know, run? Spread out your arms and run as fast as you can till you’re out of breath?
Just like that, she forgives him for the useless pep talk. It’s as if he’s speaking the darkest secrets of her heart. How does he know? Often she dreams about running, but she’s afraid she’s forgotten what it really feels like. Her steps always send her bouncing too high into the air, so she has to struggle and flail her feet to get back down to earth.
He turns to face her, his eyes big and serious. He lowers his voice to a whisper. Is she keeping you here? Your mother?
The witch’s daughter hesitates. Of course not, she thinks. What a cruel thing to say. Her mother wants her to leave. Her mother is confident that one day she’ll leave, that in fact she could go any time she wanted to, out into the world. Her mother tells her that she’s still young, and of course she’ll solve the hair problem. She’ll find fame and riches and love (she’s so beautiful, everyone is sure to love her), and the witch only hopes that she won’t completely forget her old mother, here all alone with her books of spells and the quilt she never quite gets around to starting.
No, her mother is not keeping her here. It’s not her fault. She shakes her head, her eyes lowered.
You’re a very pretty girl, he says softly, and she catches her breath. She was starting to lose hope, but it’s just like her mother said. Now it will all come out right.
But… the electrician goes on, and her heart freezes. But what? she thinks. But we hardly know each other, but you’re not my type, but how exactly am I supposed to save you? But he doesn’t say any of that.
But you need to do something about that hair, he says. He scratches his nose. It’s really a problem.
She deflates. I know, she says. This is not what she wants to say. In fact, she’s furious. It was in the crystal ball. Doesn’t he know he’s her destiny? He’s supposed to give her the strength to change. At least hold her while she screams. She hates him. He’s nothing. No prince. She’ll boil him in oil in her mother’s biggest cauldron. She’ll cut off his head and grow roses out of his eye sockets.
He tips her chin up gently with one hand, and her eyes widen. He leans in and she sees his mouth coming toward her, that crooked tooth just visible under the lip. She parts her own lips expectantly, but he only kisses her cheek.
Or else he doesn’t. Maybe he does kiss her on the mouth, but it isn’t a real kiss; it’s a chaste kiss, a pity kiss. Because maybe no one else will ever kiss her. It means nothing to him. She drops her eyes, humiliated. When he turns away, she wipes his spit off her lips with the back of her hand.
He goes back to the circuit breakers. She sits on the couch with her arms folded, not looking at him even when he announces that he’s found the problem—water damage. Two of the breakers are rusted, but not to worry, he can replace them. He has extras in his toolbox. He shows them to her: thick black squares with a piece of metal sticking off one side. He has to disconnect the power while he works, he explains apologetically. Everything goes dark, and the witch’s daughter sits there, watching her tea grow cold, while he works.
Finally he reconnects something, and the lights come back on, and the TV turns on in the middle of a football game. One helmeted man rams into another and they both crash to the AstroTurf. The announcer goes wild. The witch comes out of the bathroom, the light glaring yellow behind her, and looks from the electrician to her daughter expectantly.
Her daughter goes to the bedroom and digs some bills out of their money jar and pays him. He thanks her and leaves.
The witch starts to ask: Why didn’t you—
But her daughter doesn’t stay to hear the rest. She runs and locks herself in the bedroom. She has to push extra hard to make sure the door latches because of all the hair on the floor. She watches from the balcony as the electrician, now an ant-sized dot below, climbs into his van and drives away.
But it’s all right. It’s only a story, remember? In other versions, it ends differently. In one version, the witch’s daughter saws off her hair close to the scalp with a steak knife. She thinks the pain will kill her, but it doesn’t. She ties the hair around a hook on the windowsill and rappels down the side of the tower. She doesn’t leave her mother a note. At first she thinks she’ll go after the electrician and convince him to take her with him, but soon the sound of his engine is swallowed up by forest noises. She finds a comfortable cave for herself instead. She eats nuts and berries and skins squirrels to roast on sticks, and she is reasonably happy.
But in another version, she can’t do that. She isn’t strong enough. Instead she ties curls of paper with messages on them to the legs of all the birds that come to her window and scatters them across the land. Please help me, say the messages, I’m trapped in this tower and I can’t get out. Please come and save me. Come quickly. Using an atlas from her mother’s library, she sketches an approximation of the forest and the tower’s probable location within it, so that whoever finds the messages can use it as a map. She has no idea if the map is accurate.
In another version, she doesn’t let the electrician leave. Instead she strangles him with her hair and leaves him in her bed, with the hair sewn to his scalp, half-hidden under the covers, so her mother won’t know she’s gone until it’s too late. She doesn’t think her mother will come after her. But she might. Who knows if she told the truth all these years about the hair, if there was really nothing she could do? She’s a witch; she does have some power, after all. Surely all these years she’s had some power. Maybe she can’t leave the tower herself, but she could send something. Flying monkeys, flocks of crows, a storm of black beetles or fire elementals. Some new and more terrible curse. It could get worse. How does she know it won’t get worse?
In another version, she hangs herself with her hair, rough ropes pulled snug around her neck. Her mother finds her dangling from the ceiling fan, her legs making a slow circle. The witch thinks the pain will kill her, but it doesn’t. After that, the pain of hacking through hair is nothing to her. She can’t stay here anymore. She knows no spells for removing corpses. She puts her gnarled witchy toes in the wild grass outside the tower for the first time in decades, her daughter’s body cradled in her arms.
But in another version, the witch’s daughter lives. In this version, all the birds of the air come to her in a great flock with curls of paper tied round their claws and they say to her, We have flown north and south, east and west, and over every corner of the kingdom, but we couldn’t get anyone to read your messages. So we’ve brought them back to you. You see these little red stamps that say return to sender. Come with us, my dear, come away from here. And the witch’s daughter stands up in the middle of the flagstone floor, and as a ray of sunlight strikes her face, she melts and shrinks and all her hair becomes feathers that molt away until there’s nothing left of her but a little white dove, and she flies away with the flock, buffeted by the beating of wings, out into an unbearably blue sky.
(Editors’ Note: Lane Waldman is interviewed by Sandra Odell in this issue.)
© 2019 Lane Waldman