“Ready, aim, fire!” George could barely hear his commander over the roar of explosions coming from rifles. Even though he shared a first name with the famous general who was going to lead the colonists to independence from the Crown, George was not an enthusiastic soldier. Really he wanted to be home in Boston, courting his Bess. Maybe after the war was over, they could get married.
Bess’s father was a royalist, which was not surprising, given his high status. George was the youngest son of a poor farm family, sent to Boston as an apprentice to learn a trade when he was still barely eight years old. There was no possibility that George could ever hope to inherit wealth or be knighted, or indeed offer Bess anything approaching the standard of living to which she had been accustomed.
All of this had changed with the war. Bess’s family was getting poorer and poorer as they helped finance the redcoats, and Bess’s brother had already been killed. Her father was fighting his own war—against gout—and seemed to be losing. Bess knew that her family fortunes would decline regardless of the outcome of the war, and perhaps this was one reason she was not unwilling to let George woo her. Being the wife of a tailor, though not glamorous, certainly beat having to become a ladies’ maid back in London or worse, a courtesan here in Massachusetts. Bess’s mother and grandmother would need an income, too. Bess was a practical girl, which was one reason why George loved her.
Shooting rifles was hot work. George knew his face must be covered in dust and grime, as his sweat trapped the dirt. His scalp was unbearably itchy as well. Tom Jenkins, his bunk mate, admitted to having a bad case of head lice, which he had passed on to George. His commander had a proper ribbon to tie his hair, but George only had twine, which was good enough.
As a tailor’s apprentice he had seen rich, important men like Bess’s father, and they had real periwigs. They didn’t have to disguise their real hair. In fact, George had it on good authority—none other than Bess’s own testament—that these rich men who wore wigs actually shaved their real hair off, and so didn’t have the same problems with lice. That must be nice. Maybe someday, when he became master tailor, he would be able to buy a great big grand wig.
When he mentioned this ambition to Bess, however, she had only laughed. “No, I don’t believe a wig should make you any more comely than you are by nature. I much prefer your flaming red hair to Father’s powdered white horsehair.”
The grime and gunpowder had probably turned his red hair black, although he couldn’t see it. He had not had access to a mirror or any reflective surface of any kind for weeks.
“George Townsend! Look sharp!” Everyone knew that George was not a good soldier, but he was certainly trying.
It was just at that moment that he noticed a redcoat taking aim at Tom. As members of the revolutionary militia, each fighter was precious, since manpower was always short. Without thinking, George turned his head toward his friend and lunged, trying to push him down, just as the redcoat fired.
Kapow! George felt something hot hit the back of his head very hard as he heard his comrades return fire. Both George and Tom lay still for several long minutes from the force of the impact; George could hear a ringing in his ears.
When he heard a trumpet in the distance sounding the retreat, he finally pulled himself up to see what was going on. It was then that he noticed that his head felt somewhat lighter. Oh no, have I been hit after all? George began to feel the back of his head. No wounds, no signs of blood, but when his hands settled onto the base of his ponytail, he understood what had happened. There was only a short stump left. The bullet must have shot off a good five or six inches of his hair.
George turned around and looked down at the ground. There it was, the loose, severed hank of hair. One end was still smoking and charred. That meant that the ends of the hairs still left on his head were also scorched. Without thinking too deeply about it, George scooped up his fallen hair and shoved it into the pocket hanging from his belt.
That night, when George and Tom had nearly settled into their bunks in the old barn that served as a barracks, George heard a familiar voice singing softly. Bess had come to see him. Before the war, he had called on her in secret; now their roles were reversed. He slipped out of his bunk and sneaked out of the barn, being careful to remain in shadow as he made his way around the back of the barn, toward the woods.
There she was, resplendent as always in the moonlight. “Bess.” George couldn’t help but smile to see her. His sweetheart’s gentle touch and soft voice were exactly what he needed to soothe his poor frayed nerves.
George had forgotten all about his hair when Bess’s hands began to roam over the back of his head as they stood in an embrace. “What happened to your hair?”
George embellished on the tale, making himself out to a great hero, knowing that Bess saw through it, since he knew she loved his fanciful stories of derring-do. It didn’t matter if the deed were actually impressive, as long as he told it like it was, she would lap it up. This time, the story actually was heroic, in the sense that George had saved his friend’s life, and had the burnt off hair to prove it.
Oh yeah. George fished the severed ponytail out of his pocket to show Bess.
“I have an idea. I’m stuffing a pillow for our marriage bed, and can’t afford down or animal hair. Straw is too scratchy, and I have neither the skill nor the resources to hunt. If you give me this hair, I can use it to stuff the pillow.”
George handed her the hair without saying a word. He would have wanted her to have it anyway, perhaps in a locket. This was almost better.
“You can have all of my hair for your pillow.” George pulled off the twine that was still tied around the pitiful stump to reveal a shaggy mess of mostly neck-length hair.
“I saw a drawing of Voltaire in a pamphlet that showed him with the short, cropped hair of a Roman. I hear some pro-republican intellectuals in France have stopped wearing wigs completely. If we cut your hair short, maybe you could pass for the gentleman of principle that you are.”
George ran his hands through what was left of his hair. Why not. Whether tied back or cut short, it didn’t matter to him as long as his hair was not in his way. Besides, it would go into Bess’s pillow.
“Yes, go ahead. I have a knife to shave it off if you don’t have scissors.”
“I do have scissors, right here in my chatelaine. If you sit there, on that tree stump, I can catch the cut hair in my apron.”
George began to take off his shirt. There was nothing worse than getting itchy little hairs between his shirt and his skin. Getting hay in there was bad enough.
As he sat down on the stump with his back to Bess, he could feel her fingers working their way up and down his back before she set about the business of cutting off his hair, one lock at a time. When her hands finally did come up to the back of his neck, he could barely restrain a thrilled shiver as he felt her fingers parallel against his scalp, then the sound of her scissors eating through the hair at the back of his neck.
Even thought it was reasonable to assume that Bess had never cut anyone’s hair off to less than an inch before, she approached the curvature of his skull in a methodical manner, working her way up the back of his head first, then making him shift position, first to right, then to the left, so that she could clip the hair up and over around his ears.
She very carefully wrapped the already-cut hair in one end of her shawl, which she untucked from the bosom of her bodice, and then tied the end of the shawl carefully before removing it altogether and setting it down on the grass next to the tree stump. Her white, supple breasts gleamed in the moonlight, twin peaches inviting in their plumpness.
Standing up, she began cutting the hair at the crown of his head, bending from the waist to gingerly place each severed lock into the shawl. Her breasts quivered whenever she leaned down and righted herself again.
When she moved to face George, her bust was right at eye level as she cut the very front of his hair into a short, Caesar-esque fringe, and he could see her chest heaving as she breathed heavily. He understood why she had saved the front of his hair for last.
When she finished cutting and had wrapped up all of the severed hair in her shawl, she stood upright and gave George a kiss on his nose, then another on his forehead, and more on his ears and the newly-exposed nape of his neck. Then she ran her hand along his now-shorn skull.
She reached down for George’s hand, and placed it on the top of his head. Together they let their hands roam over his cranium, the shape of which was now clear to see. Bess smiled to see that George had a perfectly-shaped head. With so little hair left covering it, the round smooth shape of his skull seemed almost indecently exposed.
“You are comelier by far than Caesar or Mark Anthony, a true Adonis.” Bess smiled mischievously. As the probable future Mrs. Townsend, it was sweet to contemplate how scandalously handsome her beau really was.
“And you are my Cleopatra. I’ll be looking forward to the next time you come to harvest stuffing for your pillow.” George finally spoke. He would have to return to his bunk, but he could stroke his own hair as he went to sleep and dream of Bess.