By Stefanie Levine Cohen
Mother presses her index finger into her daughter’s ponytail. She notices it is taking longer to dry now that it is removed from the girl’s head than it did when attached. Three days have passed since the cutting, and the hair is still damp, or else surprisingly cold. Two-and-a-half inches across the top and dark gold in color, the ponytail is weighty, silky yet porcupine sharp where the ends are sheared. Mother runs her fingers across the bristled end where the scissors strained against the hair’s abundance. She recalls the moment of the cutting, when she imagined the scissors’ point accidentally slipping into the soft flesh of her daughter’s neck. Mother’s breath had stopped in terror. She remembers how her daughter grinned, four permanent teeth flanked by smaller baby teeth and mismatched spaces. When it was over, she held the ponytail high for Mother’s inspection. As though it were perfectly natural, Mother thinks, to remove a ten-inch-long tail from one’s head and then hold it up like a prize fish about to be scaled and grilled.
The ponytail is held together with a red elastic that wraps three times around rich waves. Mother touches the elastic, knowing that if it snaps, the strands will fall away in small clumps and bundles, scattering many months of excitement, anticipation, vanity, and pleasure. But the band holds, and the ponytail the girl has grown for the purpose of cutting it off and giving it away remains intact.
Mother places the ponytail inside an open plastic bag, which rests gently on top of her bureau. In the three days since the cutting, the ponytail has changed, reclaiming its life. At first it was soaked straight and dark, but as the hours passed, the hair lightened in color and curled gently into the waves it boasted on the daughter’s head. Now the ponytail has regained its fat, honey curls that beg to be pulled and let go. The curls remind Mother of little legs pumping up and down on swings. Curls that frame pink cheeks and green eyes dotted with gold. Innocent curls, curious and ambitious. Fearless.
It is Mother’s responsibility to package the ponytail, once dried, and to fill out some paperwork and mail it all off in a padded envelope to the organization that makes wigs for bald children. When her daughter first decided to donate her hair, Mother thought the idea lovely. Those poor, diseased children, she thought. So awful. How do their parents survive? Since researching the organization, Mother has learned that the wigs are in fact not for children with cancer, but for those who have a different condition, not in the least life-threatening, simply a condition that won’t allow them to grow hair. Mother finds the idea of donating her daughter’s hair less lovely now that she knows the children aren’t really sick, just bald. No fear of death at all, she thinks.
Mother carefully notes her daughter’s name and age on the plastic bag that contains the ponytail. She uses indelible marker. She considers enclosing a few “before and after” pictures. She has noticed that some of the children who donate their hair have photos posted on the organization’s web site, all of them holding their ponytails and braids like so many fish on string. But she decides against the photos. It is too dangerous, she thinks, to have her daughter’s face available on the Internet.
Voices of children playing draw Mother from the bureau to her bedroom window, where she sees her daughter with two girls from next door. The shorn blond hair is unfamiliar to her, and she stares as her daughter nods up and down enthusiastically. Mother watches as the three girls dash from the backyard swings to the rope ladder that leads to a fort atop the swing set. She squints at the rope ladder. Is it fraying? she wonders. Will it hold?
The girls from next door have long, black hair and strawberry-red lips. They are bigger than Mother’s daughter, with wider torsos and longer limbs. From the bedroom window it appears that one of the neighbor girls might push her daughter from the fort. It is only an illusion, however. The girls are all smiling.
Through the glass Mother can see but not hear the girls’ shouting and giggling. She turns away from the window, picks up the plastic bag with the ponytail, and places it inside the envelope. She slides the paperwork in, next to the ponytail, and carefully removes the sticky tab. Mother checks the address and takes a deep breath. Then she sets the envelope back on the bureau.
The next morning Mother awakens earlier than usual. She hasn’t slept well. While her coffee percolates, Mother packs a peanut butter sandwich, carrot sticks, a tiny cupcake, and a water bottle into her daughter’s lunch bag. Moments before the school bus is due to arrive, the girl skips down the stairs, her backpack thumping behind her. She takes four large spoonfuls of whole-grain cereal and skim milk from the bowl that Mother has prepared.
“Don’t forget to mail my hair, Mom.”
Mother nods once before retreating into her cup of coffee.
The yellow bus squeaks to a halt outside the house, and Mother follows her daughter to the door. Be careful, she thinks. Look both ways.
When the doors of the bus are pulled shut and its stop sign has folded back into its body, Mother returns to her bedroom. The padded envelope remains exactly as she left it on the bureau. Mother sighs a great, sad sigh. She slides a finger under the sticky tab and watches the stretching of the gummy glue as the mouth of the envelope opens. She tugs on the plastic bag to unzip the lock.
Mother lifts the ponytail out of the bag and shivers as she winds it around her wrist. She brings it to her nose and inhales. Yesterday its smell was fresh and sweet. Today it is sharper. She wonders if mildew has grown inside the bag. Mother holds the ponytail out to inspect it, and in an instant it is transformed. Dangling from Mother’s hand, detached from her daughter’s scalp, the ponytail seems horribly unnatural. It begins to sway slightly as Mother’s fingers tremble. Quickly she places the ponytail back in the plastic bag and zips the lock. Within the bag the ponytail lies still.
Mother walks to her closet. Behind a pile of shoes and a bag of old clothes is a large, striped hatbox. She squats on the floor and lifts the cover off the box. She removes baby mementos—tiny footprints, a photocopy of a birth certificate, a plastic identification bracelet. She digs deeper through special photos, a few crayon drawings, her daughter’s first printing of her name. In a heart-shaped box lined with velvet are two baby teeth. In a small plastic bag is an umbilical cord stump.
Mother moves these items aside and makes room for the ponytail against the bottom of the hatbox. Slowly, she replaces the articles of her daughter’s childhood, covers the box, and wedges it tightly behind the bag of old clothes. Mother settles herself comfortably on the closet floor and sits there. She can hear the muffled ticking of the bedroom clock. It aligns with her heartbeat.
By the time the school bus brings her daughter back in the afternoon, Mother has returned to the kitchen. She stands at the sink, watching through the window as her daughter descends the bus steps, walks from the curb to the house, pulls the screen door open and drops her backpack on the kitchen floor. She helps herself to three freshly baked cookies and a glass of milk, and takes a seat at the kitchen table. Mother notices that her daughter seems smaller than usual. Her neck looks thinner without hair, and her eyes bigger. Mother thinks about how huge her baby’s eyes seemed when she was born, round and trusting yet wise, wiser than Mother thinks the eyes of a baby should be.
“Did you mail my ponytail, Mom?” the girl asks through a mouthful of cookie.
Mother busies herself at the sink, rinsing coffee mugs and dishes.
“Don’t worry, my angel. I’ve taken care of it.” She glances over her shoulder and smiles. “The ponytail will be with the person who needs it most.”
“Shorn” was published in April in Storyscape Literary Journal Anthology Two, now available here.