Sabrina Orah Mark’s column, Happily, focuses on fairy tales and motherhood.
I call the Wig Man. He picks up. “My sister,” I say, “was diagnosed …” He interrupts me because he is driving and he is in a rush. “My store,” he says, “was looted last night.” “My sister,” I want to say, “…” He tells me he gathered all the hair that was left on the floor. “Glass everywhere,” he says. “I filled my Toyota Tacoma with all the hair that was left. I am driving home now,” he says. “Is you sister’s hair long?” he asks. It is. It is very long. “Because if it’s long what your sister should do before treatment begins is cut all her hair off and I will sew it, strand by strand, into a soft net. It’s called a halo,” he says. “I want to help your sister,” says the Wig Man. I imagine his Toyota Tacoma so stuffed with wigs that black and brown and blond hairs press up against the windows. Like animals trapped inside their own freedom. He starts to cry. I am certain he is driving across a bridge. “I don’t know how much more of this I can take,” he says.
“Neither do I,” I don’t say.
Sewing a wig strand by strand is called ventilating. I watch a tutorial. With a needle you draw each strand through a lace net and knot it on itself. The needle goes in and then out like thousands of tiny breaths. Ventilating a wig takes the patience of the dead. Each knotted strand is like a person sewn into a free country. The knot is tight, and the net is manufactured. “Of course my life matters,” says Eli my six-year-old. “Why wouldn’t it matter?”
My sister decides not to cut her hair. Instead she lets it fall out, slowly and then suddenly. She yawns, rises, and climbs up the stairs. She leaves behind a trail of blondish gold thread, like a princess coming undone. I write six different essays on Rapunzel. All of them are terrible. I help my sister into bed, though she prefers I not touch her. On her nightstand are six glittering tiaras. She wears one to chemo. Another to breakfast. “Isn’t it strange,” I say, “that I write about fairy tales and you are a fairy tale princess?” She looks at me hard. “A sick princess,” she says.
Of all the fairy tales, Rapunzel gives me the most difficult time. “It’s because,” says my husband, “you are trying to use her to write about systemic racism, and protest, and cancer, and a global pandemic.” “Should I just take out the racism?” I ask. “No,” he says. “You can’t take out the racism.” “I know,” I say. “That was a stupid question,” I say. “Can I take out my mother?” “Does your mother appear?” he asks. “I don’t remember your mother appearing.” “Eventually,” I say, “my mother always appears.”
I am following my husband around the kitchen. “Should I add how after George Floyd was killed you sat on the edge of the bathtub and cried? Remember how you said,” I say, “‘We’ve been here before’? Remember when you said, ‘When will this stop,’ but you said it like an answer not a question?”
“Thugs,” says the Wig Man. “They destroyed my shop,” he says. “Everything is ruined.” I never call the Wig Man back. Instead, my mother buys my sister four wigs made out of strangers’ hair. Two brown ones, and two blond. My sister refuses to try the wigs on so my mother tries them on instead. In the wigs my mother looks sad and incredibly young. I can see my sister’s face gazing out from inside my mother’s, like a girl locked inside a tower.
My husband sits on the edge of the bathtub and cries. “We’ve been here before so many times,” he says. “When will it stop?” he says. “I don’t know how much more of this I can take,” says the Wig Man. “Of course my life matters,” says Eli, “why wouldn’t it matter?” “Did you know,” says my sister, “that in Disney’s Tangled Rapunzel lives inside a kingdom called Corona?” “That can’t be right,” I say.
I cut off all my hair. A twelve-inch braid long enough for nobody to climb. I throw the braid in the trash and then remove it from the trash. It’s soft and dumb. “I can’t look at it,” says my mother. “Get it away from me,” says my sister. I put it in an envelope and send it to a dear friend’s brother, an artist who makes Torahs and animals and money out of human hair and skin. I mean it as an act of solidarity, but I get the feeling my sister and mother read it as an act of pointless sacrifice. To punish Rapunzel for betraying her captivity, the enchantress winds her braids around her left hand, cuts them off, then takes Rapunzel to a wilderness and leaves her there. “See,” I say to my sister. “It’s not so bad.” She looks at my short hair, and a small forest grows between us.
Other than Disney’s, in no version of Rapunzel is Rapunzel’s hair magical. It can’t bring back the dead, or heal a broken bone, or keep a woman young forever. It can’t light up dark water. It can’t be thrown like a lasso so Rapunzel can glide from mountaintop to mountaintop. It doesn’t, like his hair does for Samson, give her god’s power or the strength to kill a lion with her bare hands. It cannot keep a man from being shot for his blackness. It’s just hair.
“I’m sure Rapunzel is wonderful and not terrible,” emails a friend, “but also there’s something Sisyphean about Rapunzel …” She’s right. I know what she means. Rapunzel’s hair is no more magical than a mountain the enchantress climbs day after day, pushing the burden of her own spell. I know what she means, but now I am imagining rolling boulders up Rapunzel’s back as she bends down to pick the roots and berries she survives on while pregnant in the wilderness. I roll the boulder up Rapunzel’s back, and each time I reach the crest the boulder rolls back down. Rapunzel, the mountain. Rapunzel, my sister. I am using my sister’s cancer to write about the impossible because it’s impossible my sister has cancer. And it’s impossible my sons cannot go to school or play with their friends. And it’s impossible my husband could be shot for being black. And it’s impossible the air is filled with tear gas and viral particles. I have stolen my sister’s tiara to wear. I am covered in sweat and dust, and on my head the tiara is crooked. I stole the most beautiful one. I stole the one embellished with glass stones and little pink stars.
It is late afternoon and my sister is sleeping. In the dining room, my mother has lined up all the wigs on their Styrofoam heads. Like four extra daughters. She keeps walking by them and smoothing their hair with her hand. She puts one to her face and inhales. The afternoon light lengthens her shadow. I don’t know if she notices I am there. The story of Rapunzel begins with a pregnant woman’s insatiability, her hunger for the finest rapunzel (also known as rampion, or the “king’s cure-all”) that results in the barter and entrapment of her daughter. In Giambattista Basile’s “Petrosinella,” one of the earliest versions of the story, a pregnant woman is caught stealing parsley from an ogress’s garden. She apologizes, and explains she had to satisfy her craving. In the sixteenth century, there was a widespread belief that if a pregnant woman’s cravings weren’t satisfied, the shape of whatever she craved would appear on her newborn. Birthmarks are called voglie in Italian, which means longings. My sister and I have identical birthmarks on the right side of our faces. Near our ears. Like a handful of scattered acorns. I am twenty-five years older than my sister. We don’t have the same father, but we do have the same mark of our mother’s longing.
Every two weeks my mother takes my sister to be infused with poison through a hole in her neck so she doesn’t die. My mother looks over at me. I am writing a birthday card with butterflies on it. “I hate butterflies,” says my mother. “It’s a stupid thing to put on a birthday card. They’re barely alive and then they’re dead.” Every mother has the exact same single greatest fear. It’s the boulder we push while praying for no crest.
“Of course my life matters,” says Eli, my seven-year-old. “Why wouldn’t it matter?”
By now the Wig Man must have stopped crying and arrived home. I imagine he is working in the same afternoon light that comes in through my mother’s window. He is bent over as he sews each of us, like strands of hair, into a soft net. Listen, we are breathing. You are breathing. My sons and husband are breathing. The Wig Man sews and sews. One piece of glass is still caught in a strand but he doesn’t notice it yet. My mother is breathing. My sister is breathing. We will make a magnificent wig. Rapunzel will wear us in this lost version of her fairy tale. We are not magical, but at least we are alive. “Rapunzel, Rapunzel, / Let your hair down.” When she lets us down what will climb up? We have one last chance to answer right. A revolution or the enchantress who keeps us?
Sabrina Orah Mark is the author of the poetry collections The Babies and Tsim Tsum. Wild Milk, her first book of fiction, is recently out from Dorothy, a publishing project. She lives, writes, and teaches in Athens, Georgia.