When I touch the girl’s hair, she crosses her arms over her head and becomes a small, obstreperous siren. I can’t remember her name. Something botanical. Juniper? Apple? “Where is your mother?” I shout, waving the spritzer over her head as she writhes and swivels in the chair. There is supposed to be a mother. I stare at her in the mirror. “Are you here for a haircut or not?” In a strange, gravelly voice, she says, “Leave me alone. You...bitch.” She is eleven, maybe twelve. I sigh. This could take a while. By the time I get home, the cherry tomatoes will have split into oozing, infected nodes. The zucchini will have metastasized into the lettuce. The salon door opens. A surge of hot summer air whisks into the building, and a young woman enters. Her hair is short and honeyed blonde, fastidiously tousled. She grabs a handful of the girl’s hair, which is lank, the color of muddy pond water. “Why is this taking so long? Are you giving them trouble? Is she giving you trouble?” “I’ve been growing it since I was four.” “You look like a homeless person.” The mother spins the girl to face her. She holds her hands in a wide square, making a frame around the girl’s face. “She’s a pixie. Or maybe a bob. All she ever does is pull it into a ponytail. I mean, what kind of girl doesn’t want – .” “You can’t make me!” The girl kicks the supply cart. A handful of duckbill clips clatter onto the floor. “Of course I can,” the mother says. “You should see her school pictures. We’ve stopped requesting re-takes; they’re never better. I’ll be back after I go to the ATM.” The bell above the door jangles as she leaves. A family walks by outside – two parents, two kids – wearing matching orange t-shirts and eating ice-cream cones. I stare at the girl. The doctors keep saying I must do this, I must do that. Take off your shirt. Swallow these pills. Give us your blood. Let us cut you, and cut you, and cut you again. Why can’t I just go home and sit in my garden? Plant myself among morning glories and view the end through their tangled ascent? The girl looks at me in the mirror. “Do whatever you want. Just don’t make me watch.” She closes her eyes and slumps. I feel like I’ve done all of this before – this day, this unhappy girl. The priest walks past the salon in blue jeans, muttering to himself. I can’t hear his words, but I can imagine them. Obedience. Mercy. Transgression. If I had something that I’d been saving, a collectible wine or expensive perfume, I would bring it out now and pour it over this lonely girl’s head. “They tell me I’m dying,” I say. She opens her eyes and looks at me in the mirror, startled at first, and then with a kind of recognition. “I have an idea,” I say. And then I do what I’d vowed never to do. I tuck my thumbs under the wig, just beyond my temples, and lift it off. I set it on the counter and let the girl see the expanse of my forehead rising up to the dome of my head. My hair had been black, but the fuzz appearing now is grey. I bend my neck and lean my head toward the girl. She reaches out her hand and rubs me like I’m a kitten. When I lift my eyes, the girl is combing her fingers through her hair. She holds a piece of it under her nose, sniffing. We look in the mirror together, and she nods. Her mother will be furious. Or maybe she won’t. I don’t know. What I do know is that the girl – Saffron, her name is Saffron – will remember my hands massaging a minty shampoo into her hair. She’ll remember the warm water from the nozzle and the buzz of the razor and how I pressed her ears out of the way as I shaved around them. She’ll remember me brushing away the tiny hairs tickling the back of her neck. She’ll think of me every time she begins to trust someone, to reveal the pilgrimage of her life. She’ll remember seeing her face emerge, knowing her life is worthy, and hers. I pick up the scissors, and cut.
Lori Huth's stories and essays have previously appeared in Electric Lit, Vestal Review, and other journals. She won the New Millennium Writings fiction award and was a finalist for Glimmer Train’s very short fiction award and Nimrod’s Katherine Ann Porter Prize for Fiction. She lives and writes in the woods of Western New York.