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She stood poised in front of the mirror, the sharp tool to her hair like a knife to a vein. She had stood in front of that very mirror, in that very nightgown, holding those very scissors so many nights now that it felt like it had become a nighttime ritual. She could not sleep unless she tried.
They hung so innocently over her shoulder, bouncing up and down with false gaiety. They hung like a cross, heavy and beautiful and desperate. The curls were a parasite, sucking out what was left of her soul. They were a reminder of almost-was, a hopeless symbol of never-will-be.
And yet she could not cut them, no matter how many times she tried (which was every night, for what seemed like an eternity). She told herself she was desperately cleaving to an all-but-forgotten past, a paradise lost. And yet, the curls remained on her head, a beautifully sad reminder.
Everyone had always doted on her curls, saying how lovely they were. The color of polished rosewood! Her Mother proclaimed. The loveliest bronze color. They bobbed up and down with each syllable that passed her pink lips. She did not talk much anymore.
She remembered the day: bright and sunny, warm as his smile. The dress was stifling, and the collar had itched, but it made her look lovely. She loved how grown-up she felt in it, swishing about with the women, not the children anymore. Everyone was singing her praises: O! how lovely she looked! Just like an angel! But she only cared about the apple tree in the lawn and the real angel that was sitting amongst its branches.
He was her senior by two years, and she thought he had hung the moon. He was her neighbor and had always doted on her. But now she was older, wiser, more beautiful…but just as naïve. She had thought that love would be easy, that just because she was young and beautiful she deserved to be happy, that things would turn out in her favor.
She remembered the night: she had tried to run away. She had tied back her curls and hidden them under a hood. She slinked out of the house, like the alley cat slinked between buildings, under the cover of nightfall. But she was careless. Her Mother had come to check on her in the middle of the night—as she so often did—and had a fright seeing her gone. She was found no more than five minutes after she had left.
After that incident, he and she were allowed to court…under heavy surveillance by her Mother. Her Mother was a thin, dry woman who never had a kind word or a hug for her when she was growing up. She remembered her Mother striking her once, after dropping an expensive china mug. Her pride had hurt more than the bruise.
She missed her Father. He had come down with some mysterious illness that she expected was the result of treachery on her Mother’s part. She knew her Mother had great ambitions, much bigger than her Father would allow, because her Father was smart and kind, and loved her. He had said that her Mother was jealous of her beauty and admirable qualities, since she had none.
In fact, the day was the day after his death, his funeral. She was used, now, to thinking of her late Father without crying a tear. He would not want that, she knew, for he thought that she was a strong girl and was above such childish practices as crying.
She remembered crying. She remembered it well. Surprisingly, she did not cry much over Father, but she cried over him. Several months after her incident, he had pulled her aside into a small antechamber in her house and gave her a passionate kiss. She thought he would propose, and her heart still remembered the pathetic thump it gave as it leaped into her throat. But, instead, he said that he had found his calling: painting. She knew that he was a great artist, and had a portrait of herself that he had painted hanging in her bedroom. He would be leaving for Paris the next morning.
She did not cry over that, for she knew he would be back and receptive of correspondence, and they would carry across their affair over the seas, like true lovers.
Every day, the month after that, she received his letters: all of which were dated a month prior due to the time it took to mail across an ocean. Every letter was, more or less, the same: they all spoke of how lovely she was, how he missed her smile, her voice and—above all—her lovely curls. But this day was different. There had been no letter the day before, and she figured he was in Paris right now, because all his prior letters were from the boat. This envelope looked official, governmental. Could he have been discovered so quickly? Her heart began to leap with joy that he might soon be back in her arms.
Falling from its leap, her heart settled into a horrified heap somewhere around her stomach. He was discovered, but not by prospective art dealers. He was discovered by the government officials, dead with the rest of the passengers. The boat had sunk before it even reached France. She looked at the date. He had been dead for almost a month.
Suddenly, her world was spinning much faster than she could handle, and her knees gave out from under her. She remembered feeling like this before, right after she had met him, but that was out of giddiness, not out of despair. She stayed right there, on the ground, sobbing for what felt like days, weeks, maybe months. But then she got an idea.
She had had ideas before, but all of them had failed her. This one had no choice but to succeed. She pulled herself up—or she dragged herself there, she could not quite recall—and moved herself to the small pond behind her house. It was dark and cool as the night sky, but polished as glass. Soon she would be a part of it.
Feeling a sudden rush of propriety—as her Mother always encouraged—she unrolled her stockings and placed them neatly on the ground. She would not be needing them anyway. Everyone she loved was dead—her Father, her lover—and soon she would join them.
But she did not, because here she was: standing in front of her mirror with the scissors. Her mouth contorted into a grimace at the mere memory of such despair. Her Mother had found her, just as she was walking into the glassy pond. Her Mother carried her daughter, a desperate, sopping heap, into the house. She drew a hot bath and locked her daughter in her bedroom.
She remembered what this transition period was like. She spent her days crying, rejecting the food that her mother placed in her room, and writing fervent letters to a man who was no longer alive. Mad, they had called her, mad as a hatter. But she knew that she was not mad, she was grieving, and some people just grieve harder than others. Those were the people who really felt, and—for once in her pathetic life—she had finally felt something real.
Her hand stood, shaking, as if an invisible glass box closed in the curls. A single tear rolled down her cheek. Why couldn’t she do it? It was all the curls’ fault, she had reasoned that long ago. The mirror showed her what she had become: the once vibrant and beautiful girl now looked faded, like an old photograph of what she used to be. Her curls were limp and slightly ragged. She looked like death. If only, she thought, chuckling slightly. Every sharp object, pool of water, or possibly toxic substance was removed from her room to cut down any risks to her Mother’s family fortune. Without a daughter, no one could continue the line, so she would only have the wealth she had already accumulated.
All except for her secret. She had managed to sneak a pair of sharp kitchen scissors into her room. They gleamed wickedly in the light, but she had long since forgotten their original purpose. She kept them in a velvet-lined box she used to use for jewelry, but why should she wear jewelry if she was not allowed to let anyone see it?
She remembered the scissors: new and sparkling like silver. In fact, rumor had it they were silver. Her Mother would be the kind to do that, such a covertly ostentatious ornament. But why would they be in the kitchen? When her Mother knew very well that she had access to the kitchen and the bathroom, only, to bathe and eat. It was almost too easy.
If it were not for the curls.
A flash flew through her mind, as if the sun had suddenly come out (though, of course, her room had no windows). The curls represented her old self: the happy, bright, hopelessly naïve girl. She was no longer that person, and this cross was becoming too heavy to bear. If she did not let go of it, she would be crushed under the weight.
A sudden feeling of fervent resolution overpowered her. “If I cannot die,” she told her reflection-self. “then the curls cannot live.” And with a snip that sounded like a breaking bone she cut the first silky curl and it fell like a dead snake to the floor. She gasped, feeling the spot where the curl used to be. She felt lighter already, like—very slowly—the darkness was alleviating. She cut and cut and cut, until nothing was left except wispy chestnut roots.
She looked like a completely different person, and she felt like she was herself again. She looked down at the shorn pieces of evil lying on the rug beneath her feet. She wiggled her head about, feeling the lightness, as if her soul had returned to her and was lifting her up, towards heaven.
Calmly, she placed the scissors back in the velvet-lined box. She grabbed the candle, the single source of light in the room, and carried it to her bedside. She placed her now-curl-free head on her luxurious pillow. She blew the candle out.
That night she dreamed. And, in it, he was smilin