This story is part of our Summer Fiction Month 2020. Click here to view the stories featured this Fiction Month, as well as past fiction pieces.
One morning in late spring, when only the earliest risers of the orchard were awake, a car was found crashed into the milky river that surrounded the town. The man and the woman in the front seats were dead, their bodies bloodied from the neck down as if they’d been dipped in red, but the child in the backseat was alive and staring. Already, her hair was so long that it grew out of the windows of the car and onto the pavement.
The uncles and aunts and cousins in the town carried the child and her hair in a procession up the hill to where they lived, on a hill covered with lemon trees. They gave the child to the care of a widow. She picked the glass and dirt and washed the blood out of the child’s hair, then spread it out on a loom and untangled it with a comb. The widow fed the child spoonfuls of ash and pulverized seaweed to help with homesickness, and iced the soles of her feet to help with the shock.
The uncles made plans to take the child and the car with its dead bodies to the police station the next day, but, by that evening, the lemons on the trees in the orchard were the size of chopped-off heads. The cousins painted faces on the bright yellow rinds. The next day, the fruits were the size of fat children. The next day, the lemons dropped off the tree and rolled down the hill into the river, and the uncles had to telephone for trucks to come and take it all away. That evening they had a town meeting and concluded that God had sent them a blessing, a miracle, and that the child should stay.
The farmers sunk the car and its inhabitants in the river with huge stones. Then they took the child from the widow, who returned to stirring her soup on the fire, and sat the child at the top of a small tree. They named her Elna. Her hair draped over the branches like a sheet thrown over to protect the leaves from frost. When she was three years old, her hair was too heavy for them to lift her to the top of the tree, so they built a wooden house around her, and her hair came out the windows at each side. As she grew, the tree grew. And everyday in the late afternoon, after everyone had bathed in the river, and after everyone had stretched out for an hour or two on the large rocks to sleep, they all walked up the hill together, and climbed the tree, and took out their silver brushes and pearled combs which they now carried like any other tool, along with pruning shears and baskets, and brushed the ever-growing hair. They sang and chatted like witches around a boiling chicken, until it was time for making supper, and they left her again alone.
Elna did have one friend. It was a boy who couldn’t see and his two great hounds. He needed help to climb the tree. He was blind, eyes like two huge opals, and his hounds either stayed outside and ate fireflies or else climbed up with him.
The aunts would make a fire in the stone fireplace and mend dresses and trousers, while the boy, whose skin had gone a strange bluish colour ever since he’d lost his sight, would sit, often with a huge hound in his lap, and tell Elna stories. He also knew all about the rocks that his hounds would sometimes bring inside, clenched between their teeth, and say, Now Elna, this rock, tossing it back and forth between his blue hands, was under pressure inside a volcano, and This one lived at the bottom of the sea. Elna kept the rocks lined up in her room, and when she was alone, she would have long conversations with them.
The uncles built a chapel right near her tree. They danced in circles and lifted their hands to heaven and burned grasses and lizards and chanted into the smoke to make sure the miracle kept working. But it was only the boy who bothered to stay up late into the night telling stories, blue face lit by the fire’s last embers, his two hounds twitching in their sleep, until even he would fall asleep, right as he was finishing the story, and his light snoring would alert the aunts, still busy with their mending, eyes squinting in the lowlight, that it was time to wake up the blue blind boy, and help him down the tree, and into his bed with the two huge hounds, and Elna was left alone, with the weight of her hair and with the stars shining in at her, smiling in at her and winking up in their own towers, and the wind would rustle through, and Elna would fall asleep, feeling quite alone, almost alone, with her hair reaching out to the whole world.
When the hair needed washing, it was a very busy day for all of them. At the first glance of dawn, they would begin hauling water from the river up the hill in wooden buckets and clay pots and place them around the tree. Then they threw ropes over the highest branches and tied one end to the buckets and pulled the other end, so the buckets soared up, and a cousin sitting in the tree would tip the bucket over and it went on again and again all afternoon, the sound of people pulling and the sound of water sloshing and often drenching an uncle until the hair was soaked. Then everyone took a bar of soap from among their toolkit, a fresh soap made from oranges and olive oil and the fat of clean soft sheep, and began to scrub until their hands were red and sore and their arms were exhausted.
Then sometimes three or four of them would decide that they needed a bit of music if they were going to get through it all, and they’d fetch their small guitars and their flutes and tambourines and begin to sing, and everyone would sing along. And Elna would sit alone, and be tugged this way and that, and smell the oranges and olive oil and hear the tired chants and see the scrubbing elbows out the window, and heave a great sigh. And when the hair was soaped, and rinsed and a good deal of the tree, too, all the uncles, aunts and cousins, would fall asleep on the hill, needing a bath themselves, and sleep beneath the evening, when the breeze would dry her hair and lightly, it would float out, and the sun would sink behind it. It would glow like a lampshade, or like a tulip with a fairy inside, and float around the branches and the sleepers. Then a cousin would awake starving, and complain there was no dinner, then look upon the tree, with its cloak of long hair lit in the starlight, soft and gently breathing, and quickly fall to silence, and the others would follow, and they’d walk sleepy back to their beds, as if they had been drugged or hypnotised, delighted with the beauty of the enchanted hair.
Elna awoke one night in darkness. She could hear a voice outside, a sweet voice that was singing, a low and slow sad tune. She tiptoed to the window, and saw walking on the blue grass, the figures of a man and a woman, holding lanterns to their chests. They both walked so slowly, as if they were very weak, and Elna for a moment wondered if she should call out to them, but then they were gone.
The frost came one night while Elna slept. It poured down from the sky’s black mouth. It encircled the tree with a shiver, like a long lace veil. When Elna awoke, she found that her tower was locked in ice. All the light was blue.
She went to make some tea. Her breath came out in white clouds. Out the window, she saw her hair beside the leaves encircled in silver ice. The aunts couldn’t bring her breakfast. They couldn’t get past the ice. She thought of branches cracking off with the weight of frost. She imagined her hair splitting off – the lightness. She imagined jumping in the river. She saw the glint of scissors that they used for cutting silk.
By noon she’d cut it all off. It laid on the floor thick and smooth like spools of cobras with their shining skin. The ice stayed thick and cold. She climbed out the window and down the cracking branches, and kicked at the ice, and hacked it with the scissors, until a white sliver opened and widened and she raced down the hill, across the milky river, which was frozen over, and felt she would blow away from the lightness. She felt free and still alone and she wanted to feel the grass but it was frozen over. And now she was really out.
She walked along the highway. A driver asked if she needed a ride. He turned on the radio. She could feel her hair growing. She tied a shawl around her head but by the time they stopped for gas, her hair reached the floor. She gathered it up in her arms like gathered sticks and ran out without a word to the driver, who shrugged and put his debit card into the machine. Elna ran like someone was chasing her. She ran into the woods that bordered the freeway, until she slipped on her hair and fell to her knees, and decided to rest there alone in the woods. She could see above her strings of telephone wires lined with blackbirds. She could hear the rush of the freeway. The woods were still frosted. She wrapped herself in her hair. She fell asleep there alone.
The ice on the tree melted, but the hair would not leave the tree. It began to grow from the branches and the leaves slowly disappeared. The cousins and aunts and uncles still brought brushes and still spent their hours washing and singing over the blessed tree, and they soon forgot about Elna. Even her tower was hidden behind the thick green silks of hair, which shone and waved and grew, and kept the orchard happy, all except for the blue boy, who cried from his opal eyes.
Anna Winslow is a poet and filmmaker from Texas, interested in opera and themes of divinity.