This is a story about Ragene’s hair and how it grew as thick and wide as a forest.
“But we’ll fix that,” said Nana. “Now cup your ear and quit all that flinching.”
In the cushy salon chair, Ragene cupped her ear and squished her eyes real tight as Nana did what she did every third Wednesday: pressed Ragene’s hair.
The cause of her forest-hair was a wonder to Ragene, and she tried to figure it out based on what she learned in school about forests, but finally she gave up and asked Nana. She always thought about things first before asking Nana, and there was plenty of time for thinking whenever Ragene sat in that chair.
“Nana, why is my hair like this?”
Nana grabbed a plug of curls and ran a sizzling comb with metal teeth through the bunch.
“Because you were born beneath the sun, child. Everybody knows that little girls born beneath the sun had better have straight, long hair if they are to get anywhere in this land.”
“But what do you mean, ‘get anywhere’?” asked Ragene, holding her head as stiff a possum.
“I mean get anywhere,” said Nana as she stuffed the comb back into the tiny stove. “In this land, there is no room for forest-hair because people are afraid it will keep growing and break through the ceiling, and nobody wants that.”
“Well, will it break through the ceiling?”
“I don’t know, but I can’t afford to fix nobody’s ceiling, so hush up and keep still.”
Nana was a hair presser and a damn good one. She traveled to France in the 1920s when the hot comb was first invented. You see, the hot comb was a heavy comb with metal teeth and a wooden handle. A magic comb made to transform women with coarse curly hair into women with fine straight hair. After practicing abroad, Nana returned and opened a home salon, where she flicked her wrist and pressed many forest-heads. But Nana was most proud of the work she had done on Ragene’s hair.
Nana checked the comb’s temperature with a towel. “When I’m done with you, you will be the most beautiful beneath the sun!”
For Ragene, however, getting her hair pressed was the most boring process in the world, which took, on average, six whole hours. She never opened her eyes for any of it because she was always frightened that even the slightest movement on her part would award her a scalp scab, and everybody knows that scalp scabs are for tender heads who can’t keep still. Ragene only ever opened her eyes when she heard Nana cut off the stove. The room would be congested with smoke and a pungent burning stench that settled in Ragene’s clothes. Ragene would jump up and dash across the room to the mirror and run her fingers through the hair, which fell twelve inches down her back. It felt like bird feathers. It was long and straight and shiny like black diamonds, which made other girls want to touch her non-forest diamond-hair.
“Don’t let anyone touch your hair, y’hear?” Nana would warn while setting up for her next client, waving her hot comb. “I mean it, child. If you do, I’ll pop you one good.”
Poor Ragene tried to heed her Nana’s warning, but it was impossible for the girls at the all-girls school to keep their frolicking fingers to themselves. Every time they touched her hair, it would bush up again, and Nana would become highly irritated. To avoid getting popped, Ragene lied and told her Nana that a ventilator in class had caused the frizz. But she knew she could not keep the fib going for long. Ragene felt quite desperate to stay on Nana’s good side. She couldn’t stop the girls from touching her hair, but what she could do was turn their paws into profits.
At recess, Ragene set up a desk and chair in the center of an empty classroom. On the desk was a water basin, a stack of paper towels, a money cup, and a cardboard sign that read “Petting Park” in big, bold crayon. She would charge a cent a minute to any girl who wanted to play in her hair. This way, she could pay Nana for all her hard work.
She sat perfectly still in the chair and opened her hair. Girls from all over school crowded around for the park with jingling coin purses. They lifted the hair and twisted the hair and sniffed and parted and braided the hair. They had too good a time playing in the Petting Park, but soon the hair began to do strange things. It drew back like a snake and became very coarse, as if the hair were tired of being tampered with. The girls could no longer play without cutting up their fingers. One time, a fat girl’s finger got stuck in the hair, and it took three whole kids to pull it back out. Cannibal hair, some called it. Most girls were fine with cannibal hair—they liked being scared—but a few asked for their money back. The hair’s behavior was a big mystery to Ragene. She had never fully seen her natural hair.
Ragene wanted to ask Nana, but she could not do so without having to explain how her hair changed in the first place. But the secret got out anyway on Ragene’s twelfth birthday, no thanks to Nana’s clients, parents of Ragene’s schoolmates, who had been getting their hair pressed for so long they had forgotten what their natural hair looked like. In the salon, the women lifted their conditioned heads out of washbowls and gossiped about how their girls came home from some park and tracked unusual hair into the house, spoiling the good carpet. Dark, kinky hair that the parents shook out of shoes and socks and pulled from ears and fingernails. Nearby, sweeping the floor, Ragene stiffened as the women carried on.
“Just awful. . . . Isn’t it awful?” said one woman.
“Atrocious!” said another.
“Ugh, what kind of park you think it is that gets hair all over them like that?”
“Mine won’t tell me.”
“Mine either. . . . ‘A park,’” she said, mimicking her child, “simply ‘a park.’”
“It’s not so much the hair, but the kind of hair that really concerns me—like animal’s hair.”
“Could be dangerous.”
Later that night, Nana questioned Ragene about this park as they sat alone at a small kitchen table, lighting the birthday cake. Ragene blinked. Nana grabbed her chin and pulled her face close, leaving only a hair space between them. “Don’t you play dumb with me.”
Ragene dug in her pockets and pulled out ten dollars in coins, confessed about the Petting Park, and handed Nana the money.
“See, Nana, I was being an entrepreneur like you.”
Nana seized Ragene by the ear and snatched the hot comb from the stove. She popped her one, parching the gristle good.
Ragene shrieked and clutched her ear.
“You little good-for-nothing,” said Nana. “Look what you made me do!”
Ragene stumbled and staggered and became very faint, and soon she drifted out of consciousness.
She awoke some time later in a spare, dimly lit room and dressed like a penitent in a hair shirt. There was a mattress, a toilet, and a rocking chair in the corner, where Nana sat staring at her. She held Ragene’s birthday cake, not saying a word, which made Ragene very uncomfortable.
Poof! Nana blew out the twelve candles. She twirled a tress of the girl’s half-straightened hair around her finger.
“You will grow your hair to its rightful length, or I will never let you out,” said Nana. “It may not look like it, but I’m doing this for your own good.”
And with that, she disappeared out a tiny window.
Ragene feared her Nana very much at this point, for she had never seen her behave like that before. She waited a moment or two before she crept over to the window and peeked out.
The tower was a monstrosity, cold and ugly. It had neither stairs nor door, only that tiny window set very much at the top. Down below lay a grove of trees. Evidently, Nana had trimmed Ragene’s hair and made herself an actual forest filled with ominous sounds—Nana could do more with hair than straighten it when she wanted to. Whatever made those sounds never came out of the forest, at least not in the daytime when Ragene could get a good look at them.
Poor Ragene could do nothing but sit there at that window, singing and praying for God to grow her hair to its rightful length, whatever that was, or for the forest things to come out and keep her company. Ragene longed for company. Nana had stopped really talking with Ragene, which was very much unlike her. Nana had always been kind and loving to the girl. But where was she now, this kind and loving Nana of hers? The only time she spoke to Ragene was to check the length of her hair.
Nana would stand at the foot of the tower and call out, “What will make you beautiful beneath the sun?”
At this point, Ragene would stop her singing and praying to let her hair slither out the window. If the length of the hair did not reach Nana, she would scurry all the way to the top and parch the girl’s ear again for making her move so fast and crawl so high.
“Now, if you won’t grow your hair, I can’t help you.” Nana huffed. “I don’t want to burn you up.” Nana stared at Ragene when she said this, letting her know that she really did mean it.
Ragene spent her days weeping onto the floor because her Nana wanted her to have impossible fairy-tale hair and because she had been popped so many times that her ear was blotched with white. At one point, in a fit of frustration, Ragene ripped up her mattress and threw the tender stuffing all over, and when she went to gather it all up she found, buried in the heap, a very small television with a cracked screen. She set the television on her lap and twisted and turned the knobs and antenna, and slapped the box good. Still, she got nothing. One time, however, the television flickered on without Ragene bothering it and, on the screen, played a strange commercial:
Two brown girls, one with long, straight hair and one with short, kinky hair, stood onstage in an auditorium, wearing school uniforms and facing an audience. A rambunctious announcer popped onto the screen. He had large metal teeth and a great big grin, and he clutched a microphone.
“Hello there, ladies,” he said. “Tell me, what will make you beautiful beneath the sun?”
He thrust the mic into the face of the kinky-haired girl, who stuttered and sputtered and sweat like an idiot, unable to give an answer. But the straight-haired girl was relaxed and calm and had no trouble giving a response when the mic was in her face.
“That would be . . . my hair!”
The second she answered, the kinky-haired girl burst into confetti, exploding into the cheering auditorium. The announcer hauled out a fat check for a thousand dollars. Then the screen buzzed and cut off.
Ragene stared into the box with thoughtful eyes. I must be going mad. She walked over to the window, looked down at the ground so far away, and inhaled. One could easily get down—splat!—that’s all it would take.
A year or two passed and Ragene stopped caring about things. Her hair knotted and became full of dust and the dead hair of clients that Nana tracked in whenever she came up the tower. Ragene never bothered cleaning any of the hair up, or the cotton from the mattress, even though Nana brought up a thread and needle and told her to fix up her bed. But anyway, the way the dead hair had knotted into hers, Ragene noticed on yet another dreadfully dull night, made her hair appear longer than its true length. Naturally, an idea came to Ragene, and she gathered all the loose hair from the floor and bent her sewing needle in the shape of a hook.
Right away, Ragene stitched the dead hair into her own, and her hair became magnificent and longer than ever and looked very much real. It felt quite strange at first, but she got used to it quickly. When Nana called up to her, Ragene hitched a braid of her new hair out the window, and it fell all the way to the ground for the first time. Nana was unable to tell the difference, but even though she made it to the top, she was only somewhat pleased.
“Longer,” said Nana, once she was inside.
“You must be longer than the longest and straighter than the straightest,” said Nana, “if you want to have any chance of being anything good in this land.”
Ragene sat at the window each day, weaving her hair a ridiculous length and singing songs to pass the time. She had stopped praying to God long ago, because, clearly, he was not into matters of the hair.
One night, after Nana had just left the tower, she came back and cried up to Ragene again. She must have left something behind, thought Ragene. She is getting very old and forgetful. As usual, Ragene let down her hair, but the person who tumbled in through the window was not Nana.
It was a man. An expensive-looking man. Everything about him twinkled, even his eyes when he stared at her. She had never seen a man before.
“I hope you are not alarmed,” said the man.
He walked around the small space and made himself too much at home. He then explained that his sister was a client of Nana’s, who was perched beneath a hair dryer in the salon. Bored with waiting, he had wandered the forest and spied Nana climbing the tower.
Ragene noticed a bulge in his tight pants, some kind of tail, she supposed.
“Are you a forest thing?” she asked.
“Forest thing? Ha! Men like me are not forest things. My name is Harry, son of the king.”
“Well, if you are not a forest thing, then what are you?”
The man laughed awkwardly. “My dear, I am an escape artist,” he said, even though he failed every escapology course and never graduated. “And what might you be?”
“I am the most beautiful beneath the sun,” Ragene said, unconvincingly.
“Yes, yes, it seems so,” he said, stroking her fabulous hair. “And it would be a real pity for you not to enjoy your enviable reputation. Come with me.”
He hoped he was persuasive enough. Harry was very skilled at making friends with fabled girls like Ragene but was, in truth, none too crazy about bedding them. This was a secret he had kept from his father, for he knew the king would call his proclivity unnatural. But alas, he was determined to make dear old daddy proud. Perhaps rescuing and marrying a damsel from a tower would do the trick.
“How can I trust you?” asked Ragene. She pointed to the bulge in his pants. “You have a tail in the front, for goodness’ sake.”
Harry looked down, then dug into his tight pants and showed her the “tail,” a sad-looking thing with one small eye. “Go ahead, touch it,” he said.
“I’ve never seen a tail with an eye before. What will it do to me?”
“If I’m lucky, it will perk up and Father will be pleased with me.” He moved closer, flicking the thing. “Go on, it’s perfectly natural.”
After years of isolation, Ragene was having trust issues. If she touched it, she thought, she might risk losing her fingers. But if she didn’t touch it, she would never know anything. Ragene was bored with not knowing, and curiosity got the better of her. She reached out and patted the poor tail, then snatched back her hand quite quickly.
The tail magically perked up for a moment, then recoiled. Harry sighed, defeated. Ragene clapped her hands, delighted. Already this non-forest thing had shown her things Nana had never.
“If I go with you,” said Ragene, “I will have to find a way down from here.”
After she said this, a brilliant idea came to her. She told Harry all he had to do was bring her skeins of dead hair each time he went to Nana’s salon with his sister, and she would weave herself a ladder.
Harry frowned. “Now that you know all my secrets, I’d be a fool to take you with me.”
“Honest, I’ll marry you, and your secrets will be safe with me. I only wish to get out of here, to make secrets of my own. You’ll have yours. I’ll have mine. We’ll be perfectly happy.”
Ragene pushed him toward the window.
“But wait,” he said. “How do you expect me to get all that hair to you?”
“You seem like a man of many resources, Harry.” She stuffed her hair into his hand. “You’ll figure it out!”
And out the window he went.
Once a week, Harry returned, carrying a skein of hair up his sleeve. Hair from all over the world. Ragene had to pick out all sorts of foreign things from the hair before sewing it up into a ladder, such as a Himalayan mountain chunk or a few stones from the Great Wall of China and other treasures that only made her more anxious to get free.
One time, the two were a hair’s breadth from getting caught. Nana had dropped in for a surprise visit and Harry had to hide in the hair, crawling down ever so stealthily as Nana clambered her way up. Nana stopped many times along the way to cough or blow her nose or bitch about how old she was getting. But apart from that instance, Nana had not let on that she suspected anything.
It happened one evening that Ragene was shaking out strands from a Rajasthan desert when she heard the wonted call and forgot to keep her wits about her.
“What will make you beautiful beneath the sun?” a raspy voice called out.
Humming to herself, she let her hair cascade to the ground and felt Harry a-tugging. She was so sure it was Harry, for he came only at night and Nana at day.
“It amazes me how much lighter than my nana you have become,” said Ragene, lighting a candle. “What have you been dieting on, my friend?”
But when she held up the light, she saw that it was not Harry who crawled into her window.
Nana glared at her. “What did I hear you say?”
“Nothing, Nana,” said Ragene. “You heard nothing.”
Nana rubbed her leaky eyes and blew her nose on Ragene’s hair as she stepped around the room, eyeing the Indian strand on the floor.
“After all I’ve done to protect you from this godforsaken world, you go and deceive me again?”
Nana mustered up all her strength and strapped Ragene to the rocking chair. She turned the heat on her hot iron way up. She scorched out every strand of the girl’s hair, then wrapped Ragene’s bald head up so tight in a scarf that her ears bled.
“You’re lucky I don’t scalp you,” said Nana, “for all the pain you’ve brought me.”
But Nana was more pitiless than she made herself out to be. She flung Ragene and the desert as far as she could out the window, and the girl landed facedown on a sand dune.
On that same day, Harry came calling for Ragene as usual and the hair fell down as usual, so he suspected nothing. However, at the top, Nana waited with a pair of sharp scissors. When the man reached the window, Nana jabbed him in his eye, and he fell back into a bush of thorns, where a very large thorn pierced his other eye. The wretched man crawled around the forest, quite blind and unable to find his way, eating beetles and earthworms and tree roots for some years until he finally chanced upon the desert.
Ragene wandered the desert in great grief and misery, for freedom was not what she expected. It did nothing to compensate for being estranged from Nana. But it seemed like she might have enjoyed the lifestyle, at least at first. The despair she attributed to the clear and present fact that no one would look upon her, and those who did had disapproving eyes. There, Ragene lived among beggars and untouchables but never really found her tribe. For a box of matches, one group sold her to another, who bound her in chains and made her dance each night for their dinner show. They lit a fire and had her cover her head, only to uncover it at the end of the performance so they could all jump and scream and feign terror at the sight of her new growth. She became numb to the gyrating because they fed her and gave her a place to sleep and, at the very least, they so much as looked at her, which was something.
Ragene had broken away from the dancing group (or, rather, they grew bored with her routine and moved on to other entertainments) when she saw Harry again. He had escaped from the forest. He was missing two eyes and was malnourished and, plainly put, didn’t look so hot. But he smiled when he heard a voice that seemed so familiar to him.
“You’re about as worse off as I am, my friend,” said Ragene. “What happened? Were you captured, too?”
“My dear, I am an escape artist. I can never be captured or detained, only distracted,” he said weakly before he broke down, dropping into her arms. “Two vicious females attacked me! The first was your Nana, who mutilated my eyes with her hair clippers. The second was the forest, who trapped me between her thick, bushy limbs—the harlot!—and refused to let me go.”
“But we are both alive and free . . . well, maybe not so much free, as freedom is not so simple as living. But we are alive! And the ‘free’ part we can figure out together.”
“Good point,” he said, catching on. “Then let’s try to be optimistic for survival.”
“Yes!” Ragene said, indicating his tail. “After all, you still have one good eye left.”
“Another point well made,” he said. “But enough of me, what about you . . . dare I ask it?”
“Ask what? ‘What will make you beautiful beneath the sun?’” she mocked.
Ragene patted her short wooly Afro, realizing just how little she knew of her herself. Struck by a sudden sadness, perhaps from all her years of living in the dark, Ragene wept without sound over the non-forest thing in tattered tight pants, and two tears wetted his eyes.
“We’re having a little rainfall,” he said.
Ragene wiped her eyes. “So we are.”
“This means a short period of great abundance is coming!”
Now, these two tears were not made to cure Harry’s blindness, as one can expect in fairy tales. Her tears had, however, done something else. Something quite unusual. With wetted palms, Ragene patted and massaged her itchy, dry head, unknowingly rubbing tears into her scalp. At once, her natural hair sprouted! Upward and outward it went, traveling at a rapid pace through her fingers. It grew to be the size of an umbrella and well beyond that, and Ragene’s eyes twinkled with wonder under the beam of light.
Asia Nichols is a Bay Area–born writer who lives out of her backpack. Her works include travel essays, short fiction, plays, and film scripts. Her script Stranded won the Best Short Screenplay competition at the 2014 BlackStar Film Festival.
“Beautiful Beneath the Sun” was first published in Spindles (Eggplant Literary Productions, 2014)