Donetta’s sister had beautiful hair. For the first time in years, they were together in the home of their mother, who was vain and ill and, so far as Donetta could tell, happy neither to be alive nor to be dying. Donetta lived there; her sister was only visiting for as long as it took the mother to die.
Donetta’s sister had hair that was long, thick, and slickly black. If you dipped a paintbrush until it was plump and juicy with paint, then swept it across a page with a loose hand, you’d have painted a lock of Donetta’s sister’s hair. When Donetta’s sister left her hair down so it covered her ears and fell over her shoulders, she looked like a bird nestling into her own feathers.
One night, Donetta sat by the mattress where her sister was sleeping. She looked at a pair of scissors in her right hand in the moonlight. They were cheaply made but long. She reached out to her sister’s hair and began cutting. The scissor blades slid and bucked against the slippery masses of hair, making small, dry noises, but soon enough Donetta had worked her way through. Her thumb and index finger were marked and red from the scissors; she shook that hand to cool the swelling as she looked down at her sister, who was breathing deeply, through a slightly open mouth.
Donetta looked closely at her sister: at her dimpled wrists and elbows and solid calves, all white because she was careful about the sun, as would have been fashionable if they still lived where their family had come from; at her toenails, which were painted; and finally at the severance of her hair, the sterile rift between the hair still growing from her head and the hair that had been cut off. Here she experienced a sudden trick of vision: it was as if the sister that she’d seen until then had in fact been composed of two superimposed images, two pieces of film laid on top of each other. And now, someone had briefly lifted one off and out of alignment with the other, so that Donetta could see both of them at once.
One of the sisters was solid, a definite body, a woman who looked like you’d made a plumply stuffed doll version of wiry Donetta or their dying mother and crowned it with a glorious, an absurd abundance of shiny black hair, hair like a gush of oil. The other sister was white, insubstantial, a ghostly sketch of limbs in bedsheets. The heavy cap of hair, sheared as if in penance, was the only thing keeping her from lifting, dissolving away.
Donetta stayed still for another moment, then gathered up the hair in her arms and went to bed with it.
In the morning she woke up feeling as if someone had covered her with fresh leaves, cool and fragrant. She shifted her head on the pillow and could hear the strands of hair rustling under one ear.
She sat up. A weight of hair fell down on either side of her face, around her neck, down her back. She could feel that she was sitting on the ends of it, so that her scalp was tugged here and there, gently, when she shifted her seat. She smiled: she felt like a marionette pulling her own strings.
But in the mirror, she found she looked like an abbess. You couldn’t see the person past the veil. She shrugged her shoulders high, then let them down again, and watched the sheen of light run down the length of hair.
Finally she pushed it all back with a hairband, and went downstairs to help her mother out of bed.
In the kitchen the morning light was thin and sour, greenish. Its weak touch troubled Donetta; she’d wished for a full embrace, a triumphant descent. Her hair was already working its way out of the hairband; loose strands refracted light in the corners of her eyes.
Her mother set her hardened face to her bowl of rice porridge and would not eat. Several times she made as if to get up and leave, as if she could; she muttered that she wanted something dainty and savory, something tender to eat. Donetta, who was already washing vegetables for lunch, explained again about her diet. If there was anything different about Donetta, her mother didn’t remark it.
Standing at the sink, lost in the sound of running water, Donetta shrugged herself more deeply into her hair—the band had to be given up on, the hair was impossible—and she felt something dark and warm moving inside of her.
At the table, her mother was now beginning, in a start-stop way, a story from her youth, with the distant, wheedling tone of a song playing from an old radio.
Eventually her mother acceded to being fed a few spoonfuls of porridge, and then a few more, and then all of her pills. Donetta took care of the greyish leftovers. She moved her mother to the living room with its stale carpet, plastic bamboo stalks in white vases, and the drawn curtains drinking in the poor light. Her body was performing its tasks very well, but inside her hair she felt as if she were listening very hard to something, a set of instructions she couldn’t quite hear yet. If she were left alone long enough, she could make some sense of it. She sat on the couch near her mother and wound her hands into the ends of her hair. Her mother was beginning her story again, and gesturing beautifully with her dried-up hands. She had always had slender hands, she was saying to an audience that might have included Donetta.
It was another hour still, even two, before Donetta’s sister came down the stairs.
She had become sleek, shark-like. Donetta realized that she didn’t recognize her sister without the hair. Her sharp white wedge of a face looked like the point of an ivory letter opener, jutting forward from the heavy fringe of cut hair. She smiled at Donetta without saying anything, disappeared into the pantry, and reappeared with both hands full of apricots, which she began eating methodically, shifting another apricot between the thumb and index finger of the less full hand when she’d finished one.
Their mother stopped talking and stared up at Donetta’s sister as if she had walked in carrying the sun. After a moment she burst into speech: she wanted them, she wanted the apricots. Donetta’s sister smiled down at their mother and then turned and walked away slowly, with an elastic, lion-like tread, still eating.
The greenish light from the windows had thickened, was aquatic. Outside the curtains maybe a storm was coming. Donetta had a more pressing sense of something having come loose inside the house. The inside of her hair had begun prickling with a disruptive static; she couldn’t concentrate anymore on whatever it was that she was supposed to be learning.
On the couch, their mother was doing something like crying, her face twisted, very small. That my best child should treat me like this in the darkness of my age. That my child for whom I have given and given. Donetta wondered what her mother thought she had given. My children keep me and starve me. Donetta turned her eyes to her mother, saw the small, sad, unkind face, and felt full of sickness. You shouldn’t be here anymore, she thought reproachfully. You shouldn’t have to be like this.
The best that could have been said for Donetta’s mother in her youth was that her pride made her very beautiful, and it made her steely, able to survive. Indestructible things assert their own value. She had made her way out of terrible circumstances—a beautiful girl in a village so poor, thanks to revolutionary policies, that its people’s gums bled because they mixed their rice with sand to make it sit heavier in their stomachs. There had been no mother for many years, and a father whom the state had made to disappear when Donetta’s mother was seventeen or eighteen.
There were several younger sisters (Donetta could never decide if they had all been beautiful as well) and one uncle already abroad. When Donetta’s mother was nineteen, a series of swift decisions had led to her emergence, but not her sisters’, from the country: a precious photograph sent abroad, to the uncle’s friend; one marriage arrangement; and then another.
She learned to move through life by cutting other people. Her eye and her appetite were swift. She leapt from chance to chance like a person riding the back of an avalanche. Her sisters—weak, squalid—had not deserved to leave the country, it was clear.
If she entered into any picture which also contained other people, she could cut into them at angles, she could cut them loose and set them against each other. Donetta and her sister had been the work of her life; upon their appearance, she had been delighted to discover their possibilities. The purity of her talent at this, and the purity of her belief that pursuit of her talent was good, prideful: this had all in a sense been beautiful.
Now her pride (which prevented her, for example, from actually crying) was no longer beautiful. She was like a seed out of which all the vitality had gone; there was nothing left but a hard coat. And she sat in a room in a foreign country with bad light and carpeting of a worn color. Perhaps in another life she would have been a courtesan-empress. In this life she had made of herself a realm that was Donetta and her sister.
Donetta leaned across the couch, briefly touched one of her mother’s dried hands—her hair spilled over one shoulder as she did so, how it poured and poured, even now she could take pleasure in this—and then got up and left to find where her sister had gone.
Yes, the light inside the house had thickened. It was a fluid; Donetta forced her way through it, seeing everything in the house in a new way, in this light. Tables, chairs, pictures, shelves—everything had a hostile shape, a jarring shadow. Her hair nearly vibrated around her shoulders. She was afraid, and resentful: she should have been able to enjoy her new self. Her sister had found some way to spoil things.
Finally she found her in the pantry; the door was halfway open. Donetta pushed the door further and took a step inside. Her sister was standing with her back to her, slightly bent, as if she were protecting something against her stomach. At the sound of the door coming to rest against the wall, she turned to Donetta. Her hands were making gripping motions with ferocious strength, but they were empty. The apricots—rosy, tender—had vanished all into her.
From her tapered white face she gave Donetta such a sneer: it said, Who are you ?
As if out of deep woods, Donetta looked back at her sister. Around her ears her hair moved with a slight sound of wind. She could make no sense of her sister’s face, the geometrical glyph of the white face and black hair, the alien smile. It was impossible to believe that there was a person in there, someone who harbored thoughts of a changing softness.
With the slightest backward tensing of her neck and chin, Donetta withdrew into her hair.
Satisfied, her sister turned away to the wall again. She rested a moment, preparing herself maybe, and then began making furtive, convulsive motions, as if she were snatching unseen things and taking them into herself. With each movement the curtain of her short hair jerked around her neck, as if being twitched upward and about to show something. Donetta backed away and closed the door before her.
What was it like to have no parents at all, like in a fairy tale, or like Donetta’s mother at eighteen? A parent was a bulwark against the outer world, a safeguard between you and the necessity of taking a fearful step. A parent meant never having to feel the conviction of aloneness. They held you; they would not let you go astray.
It was later in the day, the green light had held, firmed, did not break. It was increasingly difficult to see out of even the windows that were uncurtained, where the light massed against the panes like leaves. She was trying to feed her mother rice porridge again, pushing spoonfuls against the firmly pressed lips, which she understood to belong to the woman who had caused her, impossibly, to exist. How absurd, that a thinking being should be able to make, with some effort but no permission, another thinking being, a whole other.
Her mother at eighteen, Donetta decided, must have been a creature of infinite fear and infinite possibility. And armed with that cutting ability, of a ferocity totally disproportionate to the comfortable circumstances in which she eventually arrived. What a creature! Like a tiger transplanted into a bed of tiger lilies. If only Donetta, too, had had the opportunity to exist free of parentage—to shake off the chain of descent.
Her mother wasn’t eating; her eyes and mouth were sealed with an expression of suffering. She looked like a child who was waiting to be picked up and carried somewhere else.
Donetta put down the bowl and spoon and simply looked at her mother for some time, at the spotted and tightly wrinkled wax-yellow skin, the brown stains under the eyes. The lines at the corners of the mouth, even under the mouth, and at the center of the brow were marked with cruel depth. The thin grey hair with strands of black fell backward from the brow slackly. Her hands were fisted expectantly at the edge of the table. Yes, she was waiting to be taken away, she was depending on it.
Donetta stands at the center of the kitchen, holding tightly at hip-height thick fistfuls of her black hair, her cool black hair. The green light is suffocating, and from the pantry come terrible sounds—sacks and packets and boxes being torn open and thrown aside, grains and plastic pouches cascading to the tiled floor. Heedlessness, a ransacking. There are rending sounds, jaws working without regard to material encountered, the suctioning sound of saliva against cheek and tongue, punctuated by avid inhalations of breath.
Donetta’s done something wrong but she can’t see how. Her hair absorbs her tears.
At the kitchen table her mother has subsided into stillness, face lightly uplifted, the whole figure compact and hard as a nut. Donetta looks at her mother and thinks of the story of the pure-hearted monk who drank only tea, a bitter and glistening tea, made from the sap of the lacquer tree, until he dwindled, moved no more, became himself a precious and glistening object. The smoke of incense drifted up around the crossed ankles of that taut instrument of reverence. Bells rang and the people pressed faces close to see.
Once there was a girl, Donetta thinks as she readies herself and her mother to leave the house, who never left her mother’s embrace. She’s wound her hair about her, crossing and recrossing her chest with broad satiny stripes, to make a carrying sling for her mother.
The mother was a busy woman with many needs, many desires. She didn’t have enough time and hands for them all, so she found the simplest secret to making more. Inside herself she caused to be planted the seed for a homunculus. In time she brought this forth, and she nurtured it until the day that it could bring a spoon to its own mouth. Then she proudly declared it to be its own creature. But a secret connection was maintained, one which allowed the mother to wear that homunculus’s body like a second skin, to reach with its hands and grasp with its fingers, to walk with its feet where she would. The most secret, potent magic of it all was that this act of sorcery was considered perfectly natural.
After this endoublement the mother’s magic was exhausted, or sated; the second child she brought forth was free to rove with a terrifying liberty, like a big cat suddenly freed of the disinclination to eat human flesh.
Lightly Donetta plucks up her mother’s figure from the kitchen table. She can handle her now like a stick of driftwood, pleasantly worn; she settles her deep in the strong meshes of hair at her breast, so that the face looks like that of someone drowning peacefully in black water. How small, Donetta thinks. The sounds from the pantry shake the house, but Donetta has decided that they have nothing to do with her or what she does next. The house is too small, that much is clear.
Donetta walks to a window, parting the green light with her body so that it eddies behind her. Outside the landscape stretches on and on, hills of a deep-water shade of green, little distinct from the sky. Distance is impossible to judge, but she thinks she can see—she sighs—that the farthest reaches are fringed with an undulant growth, a forest of long black hair.
Donetta turns to the door, opens it, strides out. Outside the house, the light is little better than in, but with her mother nestled at her breast, she treads faster and faster, taking steps as if biting down into the green hills. Her eyes are fixed on the wavering line of the forest of black hair in the distance. Against her breast her mother stirs once or twice, before subsiding again into a treasure-like stillness.
Two things happen on her way to the forest of black hair. First, Donetta stops on the crest of a hill to look back toward the house. There, in a space of rubble, she can see a white figure crouching, and occasionally dipping its head to feed. She looks only briefly, and does not turn again.
Some time later, she pauses on the rise of another hill, this time to listen. Here, finally here, she can make out the beginning of the instructions to which she’s been bending an ear, it seems, so long. Here she digs down with both hands, levering aside the velvet skin of grass and handfuls of dark, clinging soil. Here she’ll plant her mother, she’ll seal the eyes and mouth with the sweet closeness of soil. Her mother murmurs once as the soil permits her passage, sifting her downward with all her gifts.
It’s done; the coils of hair at Donetta’s breast fall open with an easy laxity. Now she lets them trail behind her as she walks on, faster and still faster. At the edge of her vision a white figure lopes, keeping pace easily, joyfully, but it threads away into nothing when she turns her head to see. There are many hills.
Now she is at the sill of the forest of hair, which rises above her with vast, sibilant motion. Now her hands, now her face and shoulders, are pushing deeply into that impossible mass: like a smothering fall of dry water. Her own hair is swept back, swept up with painful eagerness. Strand by strand the hair separates from her scalp, fish darting to rejoin a school. She can’t yet feel the lightness of her head but soon she will; she presses on. For some time she is blinded, but she knows on the other side she’ll see some light, a face, her own.
Diana M. Chien’s writing has appeared in publications including Tin House, Boulevard, the American Reader, VOLT, and Web Conjunctions, and has received awards from the Atlantic Monthly and others. She holds a certificate in creative writing from Princeton University and a Ph.D. in microbiology from MIT, where she directs a science communication program.
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