by Megan Paris, 10th October 2022
You left your hair in the sink! Mother yells. It’s all over the dishes, it’s all covered in soap. Come and put it away!
I go to find Mother in the kitchen. She is bent over the sink, there is water pouring over her hands, turning them red. Steam rises from the basin. She is sweating.
That isn’t my hair, I say, and she twists her neck to stare at me.
Mother, she is a bird-woman. With frail little bird bones and hair that sticks out of her like feathers. Her nose is beaked, arms flap and wiggle around as if they were wings.
Well it isn’t my hair! Mother yells. She digs her arthritic claws into the sink and scrapes the strands out, pressing hard against the metal so that it squeaks. She gathers the clumps of hair into her fist like wet spaghetti and shakes it at me.
No, I say, it is too long.
I’ll show you too long! Mother yells. She opens a cabinet and throws the hair inside. It sticks to the back, all congealed and writhing like a pile of fat earthworms, and Mother slaps the door shut before we have a chance to watch it peel off.
Mother has never been beautiful. Before she was Mother, she was one of some sisters. She was the ugliest, a pitiful thing. With pin-pricks of red all over her face and dark hair that hung off her like rags. It’s a shame, people would say when they saw her, what a shame!
A shame! Mother yells. Her hands are out of the water, they are in my hair. Sticky. A shame! That is, they are in the hair that is still on my head. Her great, pale eyes are bulging as she grips my scalp, twisting my head to look up at her. I try to keep my eyes closed for fear of seeing her up close, all bulging veins and flapping skin.
When Mother got pregnant she grew a great pot of a belly, with no man to follow behind her carrying her bags. The people thought this was a shame. Poor baby! One would say. Poor Mother! Others would agree. The day she gave birth was the day Mother began her change into a bird. As soon as the baby was plucked out of her, Mother’s skin got loose and wrinkled, her eyes became too big for her skull. Her body was being punished for giving all it could to grow this creature. The doctors saw this and placed the baby into her arms and rushed the two of them out of the hospital. I’m sorry we can’t help you! They called. It really is such a shame!
Your hair, Mother says to me, so light and soft. She pulls her claws from my scalp, taking with them some strands of my hair. I drop my head, able to open my eyes again.
Mother examines the strands stuck between her fingers and under her nails. They’re light and thin. Nothing like her own. But look at it, falling out like that, when she turns back to me, her eyes are shining, you must be sick.
When Mother is abnormally tender like this, I let her take my head into her lap and comb it with her fingers. And I let her lead me to my little bed in the corner of the kitchen and lay me down and tuck the blankets around me tightly so that I can feel my heartbeat everywhere. Mother was never meant to be a mother. She was meant to be a bird, to fully sprout feathers and hollow out her bones. But instead, she is this: a woman. A despicable freak. She knows this, I know this, the people know this. But in her moments of tenderness, she looks at me and says, Oh my baby, look how you’ve grown!
When Mother’s baby grew itself into a child, Mother began to wake up in the night and walk off to strange places. She would wrap a bathrobe around her ancient, knotted body and walk barefoot down the street, making sure to stop under each streetlight so the people could see. The people would watch her hunched shoulders and brittle bones and cluck their tongues. No shoes, one would say. Old robe, another would agree. Then, they would draw their blinds to let Mother know that she had been seen, that she could move along. And she would walk this way, slowly, down to the end of our block. Then she would turn either left or right and keep going until the sun blinked her brain awake. On these nights, her child would stay home and curl itself deep into its bed in the corner of the kitchen. It knew not to move until Mother returned in the morning.
I’m going to make you soup for dinner! Mother squeals, her eyes are beady and dark and staring at me cross-eyed. She gathers my hairs in a pile against her chest and hops off my bed, leaving me tucked in and sore as she waddles over to the stove. Pulling a pot from the shelf and clucking madly, Mother begins to untie her dress.
Hair soup? I ask her now-naked back. Hair soup! She responds. This is her specialty. And this is how it is made: with a pot of boiling stock, a handful of hair (anyone’s will do), and one yellow onion. Mother must be nude, the kitchen window must be open. The people must know that Mother can be a mother and provide for her child. And I must sit on my bed in the corner of the kitchen and watch her perform in this motherly way. She does it for them, and she does it for me.
When the hair soup is boiling, Mother ladles it out from the pot and into a bowl that she carries over to me. Hot. Hot, hot, hot, she mumbles, reaching out her boney arms and sticking the bowl into my hands. She climbs up onto the counter, facing me, and pulls her knees up to her chest, squatting and staring at me as I blow on the soup. It is now and only now, when Mother watches me eat this thing she’s created, that the people turn away and do not watch us. This is the thing they choose not to see, for they do not like it when Mother behaves motherly. Without their eyes on us, I lift the bowl to my mouth and drink. Mother shines a greasy smile from up there on her perch, and her cross eyes stare blankly at me. Oh little worm, she coos, how I wish I could eat you right up.