Elve crouched, careful to keep her spine straight as she lowered the heavy yoke to the ground. When the weight of the heavy bundles of dried grain and beans finally eased off her shoulders, she sighed in relief, straightened, and wiped a sheen of sweat off her forehead.
The early springtime foliage overhead cast the narrow footpath into a spotted pattern of light and shadow, blocking most of the still surprisingly warm sun. Sports of green were breaking out throughout the forest underbrush; where nature had been in the bleak grasp of winter just a few days ago, it now seemed vibrant and alive.
The track from the village below to her family’s steading was a short but arduous climb. It sat nestled on a natural terrace halfway up the heavily wooded flanks of the valley, just below where the ancestral mountain pastures began. High above, beyond the spring foliage, she could even now make out the peaks looming, where green shrubs turned into grey granite.
Despite cool mountain air and the stiff breeze that had torn on her clothes and hair all the way up the steep mountainside, Elve was soaked in sweat. Wet strands stuck to her neck and under her coat the rear of her linen overshirt uncomfortably clung to her back. She grimaced as she bowed down to tighten the laces on her well-worn shoes, stretching the wet fabric over her back in the process. How was it even possible to be hot and cold aKt the same time?
But it was no matter; from where Elve was now, it was just a little further to the steading. She climbed this route almost daily, for one reason or another, but today the thought of returning home had her in a strangely anticipatory mood. Absentmindedly she ran her fingers through her sweat-slick hair, pushing a loose strand out of her face for the thousandth time.
This morning, she had seen grandfather sharpening the shears. The blind old man had sat by the window, staring at nothing while his gnarly fingers deftly ran the grindstone along the worn half-moon blades of the heavy sharing scissors. That did not have to mean anything; it was that time of the year though. For as long as Elve could remember, mother had always gathered her flock during the first warm days of spring to sheer off the winder wool – which included both her children and her sheep. It was a yearly ritual, and Elve had looked forward to it each time. The feeling of a bare head in the mountain winds, devoid of the weight of hair, the cool breeze chilling her ears, the sun on her scalp – it signified something to her. Another year had passed; a new one was beginning, unencumbered by the ballast of the old.
Also, it was just plainly more practical. She tried in vain to gather all her hair into a bun, but at just about one year’s worth of growth, it was not quite long enough to pull it back as tightly as she would have liked. Elve sighed as a few strands on the front immediately fell back into her face but decided to ignore it. Instead, she flexed her legs and heaved the heavy yoke back on her left shoulder, switching it over from her by the now tender right side. Not much longer now.
She continued up the path, doggedly setting one foot in front of the other on the rocky path. Eventually the trees started to thin, and she arrived on the small grass-covered slopes just below their home.
A small cluster of three buildings clung to the mountainside, smoke rising from the chimney of the largest one into the bluish-grey sky. Countless sheep dotted the grassy pastures beyond, and Elve could faintly make out bleating mixed with the faint crescendo of dozens of bells.
Elve was just hiking up the last stretch to the house when two tiny shapes came leaping over the ridge and down towards her. The rear one jumped in full sprint, hit the other’s back with force and clung to it with astounding strength. Both were yelling as they tumbled down the grassy incline until they came to rest close to where Elve herself had stopped.
She had to smirk. The twins where as opposite as they were inseparable. But at 7 winters old, they were still cute enough to tolerate – mostly.
“Nell, leave your brother alone! And Gild, I told you to not let your sister push you around like that! And if any of you get mud all over you, I will not be the one washing your clothes!”, she yelled in their direction, already knowing that her words would be ignored.
The two siblings slowly untangled from each other and climbed to their feet, racing each other as they ran over towards her.
From close up Elve could not help but notice that her hunch had been right; both of her younger siblings’ hair had been cropped very short. While Gild’s hair had the same blondish-brown shade as that of herself and their father, Nell had inherited her almost black hair from their mother. Both cuts had been done with only mildly more regard for evenness than the sheep would receive. Her mother just did not have the patience for the finer things, it seemed. She sighed inwardly. So, it was Elve who would have to sit the twins down later tonight and fix this. The twins raced by without stopping and she climbed the remaining distance to the level terrace on which the three wooden buildings of her family’s homestead were huddled together. Elve carefully maneuvered the yoke through the open door of the summer kitchen and into the residential building, where she carefully stashed away her goods.
From the main living room next door, the unmistakably giddy blabbering of her youngest sister Kei could be heard, occasionally interrupted by the quiet cursing of her mother. Elve considered joining them inside but could not bring herself to. A few more moments of peace and quiet could not hurt.
She had sat outside for a long while, deep in thoughts, letting her gaze wander over the breathtaking view of the late afternoon valley below when the sound of plodding steps behind her brought her back. A moment later, Kei hugged her from behind.
“Hey, small one. Oh, you got a haircut? It’s so pretty! Come let me feel!”, Elve could not stop smiling as she ran her hand over her sister’s close-cropped fur; it still had the whitish blond color that all children eventually grow out of. Elve sneered inwardly as she noticed a shallow scrape on her sister’s forehead, where the scissors had apparently been wielded with too little care, but decided not to say anything.
“Now you?”, Kei mumbled and tucked on one of the loose strands hanging over Elve’s face.
“Yes, now it’s my turn. Mama will cut my hair just like yours. Would you like that?”
Kei nodded enthusiastically, giving her hair one more violent tug as if she wanted to rip them out then and there. Elve suppressed a grimace, instead hugging her sister to make her stop.
“Go play with Nell and Gild, I will come to find you in a bit. But don’t go too far, all right?”
Kei nodded again, and Elve sent her off running down the slope to where she could still hear the siblings yell.
“Sometimes, I think you are more their mother than I am.” Her mother’s voice was deeper than most women’s – not gruff, but commanding respect and obedience with every word.
Elve got up and turned around to face her. She was a tall and extraordinarily pretty woman, with a finely cut face that seemed to clash with her weathered skin from long days on the mountain pastures. Although Elve would likely not grow to her height, they almost stood eye to eye now. Her mother’s dark hair, which had still fallen to her shoulders this morning, had been cut short already. In her hands, she was clutching the heavy shearing scissors, absentmindedly running her thumb along the aged metal.
“Well, I try my best, mother. With Paps blind and father… gone, I know they need someone.” Someone to spend time with them, to actually look after them, her words seemed to say, without her actually doing so. But she could hardly blame her mother for spending her days on the pastures and caring for her herd; this was the only thing keeping them fed and alive.
They both were silent for a long moment, unsure what to say or feel.
“So, is it my turn?”
Her mother eyed her for a long moment with an unreadable expression, then she gestured for Elve to follow her inside. The living room was a large dim room full of dark wood, with the large fireplace of the winter kitchen dominating the center. Her grandfather, Paps, was sitting in a high-backed wooden armchair close to the fire, multiple furs and blankets layered over his bony legs. His wrinkly face had turned gaunt over the past years, and his pupilless white eyes stared into the room, still following everyone with an attentiveness that betrayed that he was neither deaf nor senile.
Elve went over to him and pressed a quick kiss on his forehead, before heading over to a small stool that had been placed by an open window on the opposite side of the room. Piles of severed hair in various shades of blond and black covered the ground in an arc around it.
When her mother showed no intentions to join her, Elve looked over, eyebrows raised in question. Both her mother and grandfather were facing each other in intense silence, as if in a quiet argument only they could hear. Then her mother finally spoke in an uncharacteristically soft and almost pained voice:
“Not today, dear. Get up.”
Confused, and with a sinking feeling in her stomach, Elve did as instructed.
“What is it?”
“Do you remember the package that you brought from the village the other day; the one the courier left for us?”
Elve nodded; her mouth dry with anticipation.
“It is from your father. There is a letter – and some other things. He says his spell of bad luck is over; he has found good employment with an old officer of his from The Campaigns who is trading in lumber now. It pays well, more than he ever made since the war, he says, and has sent some money…”
Her heart jumped, and Elve caught herself holding her breath as her mother relayed the letter’s content. It had been over two years since she had last seen her father. After returning from the king’s campaigns, he had changed and grown restless, according to her mother; she herself was not old enough to remember what he had been like before. But whatever was the truth, her father had left for a second time about two years ago – to find employment in the city, and build a home there for the family, supposedly. Few letters had come since then, and most were filled with more stories and excuses than money.
When her mother finally fell silent, Elve had tears in her eyes. She wiped them away with her cuff.
“I… I am glad for him. For all of us. Maybe now he can buy that beautiful city house he always talked of.”, the words sounded empty in her heart, but she could still recall the excited look in her father’s face as he talked about the wonderful home, he would buy for them in the city.
“What does any of this have to do with my hair though?”
A sad smile snuck on her mother’s lips.
“Dad’s friend; he apparently has a nephew, Reidel. A kind young man from what it seems. Successful as an army officer. Smart. Your father and I want you to go and stay with him to the city for a while. Meet Reidel; and if things are good… you will marry him.”
The words did not unfold their full meaning for a long moment, as Elve turned them in her head, trying to grasp their implications. When it finally hit her, the dark living room started spinning in front of her eyes and she had to support herself on a pillar when her knees suddenly felt soft.
Leave home. To merry! She… could not. She was not ready. Was she?
“Mother, no, I cannot…”
“You can Elve, I know you can.”
“Get a hold of yourself, girl.”, her grandfather barked. “Come on Lilla, show her.”
Carefully, as if handling something immensely fragile, her mother picked up a leather pouch and handed it to Elve.
“What is it?”, she asked, her voice shaking.
“A gift, from your admirer. Your father must have praised you beyond all reason, and it seems like that boy is already in love with you – just through his stories.”
With trembling fingers, Elve untied the pouch and pulled out a beautifully crafted hair comb. It was carved from an unfamiliar pale white material, with delicate, needle-like teeth and detailed painted filigree in the shape of flowers and vines all over the handle.
This Reidel apparently was a wealthy man – and one who preferred his woman with long hair that looked pretty when decorated with combs. She swallowed hard.
“Mother, I cannot…”
“Yes, you can, and you will.” The sad smile had vanished from her mother’s lips and her eyes were suddenly as stern as ever. “Your father may not have been around a lot in recent years, but he has risked everything to build a better life for us, one away from this backwater. This is our only chance to do so, your only chance. Do you understand?”
Elve stared at the comb in her hand in horror, at a loss for words. When it slipped from her limb fingers and toppled to the floor, she barely noticed. A moment later, her mother’s slap hit Elve squarely in the face, making her word spin and causing her to stagger backward with a gasp.
“You stupid, ungrateful brat!”, her mother hissed, as she frantically reached for the comb and inspected it for damage to the delicate item. “This is worth more than everything else we own taken together You will do as your father wishes; as I wish! And you will do so in proper grace and without complaint.”
Elve stared at her mother in shock, a painful throbbing in her cheek, feeling tears welling up in her eyes for the second time – though she could not say if from pain, anger, or the overwhelming feeling of loss.
But she would not cry. Not here in front of her grandfather and mother. Elve sneered and clenched her teeth to not blurt out works she would regret. Without meeting her mother’s eyes, she stormed out.
It was almost dark by the time Elve returned to the house. Only faint candlelight from the sitting room outlined the edges of the window shudders, and no sound could be heard besides the faint noises of the sheep in their perimeter. Elve stopped with one hand on the doorknob, swallowing hard. Her eyes were swollen from crying, and she had barely managed to wrestle down the torrent of thoughts – some frightful, some desperate, most just angry – that had overwhelmed her over the past hours. Even after hours alone with her thoughts in the cool springtime night, the prospect of facing her mother again made her want to scream in frustration. It was late in the evening though, and the merciless sting of icy mountain wind had taken hold of her nose, ears and fingers. Maybe she would be lucky, and everyone would be asleep already.
With clenched teeth she fumbled for the doorlatch and slipped out of her leather boots. Deliberately placing each step on the familiar floorboards, she snuck into the house, careful to not elicit a single creak from the old wooden planks.
As she rounded the corner to the sitting room, Elve could faintly make out the silhouette of her grandfather in his usual place by the dying fire. The dim glow of the remaining embers cast the scene into a muddy orange light that caught on the edges of beams and furniture, only hinting at the layout of the room.
Elve released a breath she had not realized she had held when she recognized the faint snoring of her grandfather. She was just hurrying cross the room towards the sleeping quarters in the back of the house, when an unexpected reflection caught her eye; on her grandfather’s lab, two gnarled fingers wrapped around the loop handle, lay the large, freshly sharpened sheering scissors.
Elve froze. Her heartbeat suddenly thrummed loudly in her ears, and she chewed on her lips as she stood there; tempted, undecided. Could she…?
Before she had the chance of to truly hesitate, she tip-toed over towards her grandfather. Her mother had tucked the blind aged man in with his various thick blankets, and only his wrinkled face and hands were exposed to the cool air. His toothless mouth hung half open as he slept, his head tilted into the back of his neck at an uncanny angle.
Slowly, Elve reached out and, with as much delicacy as she could muster, wrapped her fingers around the shears. The metal felt cool on her skin and still slightly slick from the fresh oil applied just hours earlier to lubricate the hinge. She twisted ever so carefully, until her grandfather’s grip first loosened, and then slackened entirely. With an equally relieved and exited gasp Elve threaded the sheers’ loop over his fingers – and then she held them in her hands.
For a long moment she just stood in the darkness, reveling in a mix of emotions. What now…? Where could she go?
“What?! Who goes there…?” the question was quiet but harsh, mumbled on the edge of sleep and wakefulness. Elve froze and met her grandfather’s unseeing white eyes with a sinking feeling of horror, suddenly staring straight at and through her. For a long spell that was likely just a minute or two, but felt like hours, she stood there, within arm’s reach of the blind man; unmoving, forcing herself to take only shallow, inaudible breaths. Every moment she expected him to call out for her mother, expected her to rush into the living room. If she got caught her mother would make sure that any scissors and knives capable of cutting more than butter left her reach indefinitely; that and a savage beating. Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, her grandfather’s watery old eyes fell shut again and within moments his breath returned to the low, rhythmic snoring from before.
Shaking, Elve straightened and quietly but quickly brought distance between herself and the sleeping man. When she reached the center of the room, she paused to think. Where could she go? In the adjoining room the chances of waking her siblings – or God forbid, her mother – were even higher. Outside it was freezing though, and pitch black. Still, it was better than getting caught in the act.
With practiced motions she grabbed the lantern by the door, trimmed the candle’s wax and wick, and quietly lit it on the dying embers in the fire. With the steady warm glow of the candle to light her way, and the scissors firmly clasped in her hands, she snuck back out into the moonless night.
The night embraced her with icy fingers and Elve hurried across the lightless yard towards the small barn on the other side. She slid open the heavy wooden door as quietly as she could, and immediately, the overwhelming smell of sheep and wet wool hit her. By the flickering light of the candle, she found the wooden ladder to the attic and climbed up. Skins and sheets of washed wool were hung up between the high rafters to dry, while dried and firmly bound bales lay stacked along the wall.
Her excitement rose as she hurried to the back of the attic. Impatiently, Elve placed the lantern on a small stool and kneeled next to it on the cold wooden planks.
She had made it! By tomorrow her mother would certainly be furious; all the lamenting and beatings in the world could not make hair grow back any quicker though. The sense of malicious glee that washed over her at the thought of her mother’s helpless frustration made Elve feel equally giddy and ashamed.
The snuffed the latter emotion out before it could take hold and grasped the scissors tighter. Whatever happened, she would not have her life turned upside down at her parent’s word, just like that – if she had to leave her home, and her siblings, she should do so on her own terms! And certainly, without some perfect stranger’s comb in her hair.
Determined, but unsure how to start, Elve stared at the large sheers that lay heavy in her hand. A band of reflective grinding marks along both edges showed where the blades had recently been sharpened. Tentatively, she opened and closed the blades a couple of times. The freshly oiled joint provided no resistance, and the faint but sharp sound of the tightly fitted blades scraping along each other as the shears closed made a shiver run down her spine.
Elve swallowed hard. No reason to delay then. She ran her left hand through her hair, combing out tussles as the strands glided through her fingers.
How should she do this? The had never cut her own hair before. Usually, it was her mother’s outside perspective and firm hands that decided which stands to hold, where to cut. She herself had only her own touch to guide her. Her mother had always had little regard for style or evenness when cutting her children’s hair. But she usually managed to leave short tufts of a finger’s width all over, cropping the hair short but not shearing her kids completely bare. As Elve tried to measure out the same distance now, guided only by her own touch, it proved surprisingly difficult to tell where the scissors would cut. Her best bet for an even crop then, it seemed, was to firmly press the scissors to her scalp and use it as a guide to cut all the way at the root.
Elve nervously licked her lips as she ran her hands though her hair over and over again, trying to get a sense for its length and figuring out how to best hold it. After a while of delaying in this way, she finally clenched her teeth and grabbed a thick strand along her front hairline with more force than would have been necessary. She winced. She wanted to do this – badly. But making the first cut proved more difficult than expected. Somehow, this time around, the idea of cutting her hair felt more profound than it ever had before.
With a deep breath Elve finally lifted the shears, opened them a finger’s with and slid them around the strand she was still grabbing firmly. The cool metal rested against her scalp expectancy, as she knelt there for long moments.
Then, with a final deep breath, she closed her eyes and clenched her hand shut. The blades of the shears closed smoothly, and with a faint shredding sound that sent goosebumps up her neck the first strand was severed at the root.
With a giddy, numb feeling of having done something impossibly forbidden without any way back, Elve stared at the handspan-long length of ash-blond hair in her hand. Then she let it slide to the floor, laughing out loud for a brief moment as a sense of triumph washed over her. She had done it.
Without hesitation, Elve grabbed a second strand, wound it firmly around her fingers, held it tight, inserted the shears, and cut. The second strand came free, and this time she let it slide to the floor right away. A third followed moments later. With tentative excitement she ran her fingertips over the small bald spot that had emerged above her left eye. Only stubble moved under her touch, and she had to grin at the sensation.
Once again, she lifted the scissors and continued cutting with new vigor. Soon she fell into a hypnotic rhythm of tightening and cutting, slowly shearing off the hair along her crown one chunk at a time. When the section above her forehead was bare, she immediately moved on the right-side, gradually cropping bare the area above her ear and along her temple. Once, she cursed quietly as the scissors nicked her ear, but Elve continued with grim determination and soon the hair on her left side followed.
Finally, in her frenzy her hand started cramping up. Although she still had a fair bit more to cut, Elve paused with a silent curse, and momentarily had to put down the heavy shears. Now, with most of her hair gone, Elve could already feel the cool night air touching her scalp. She breathed heavily as she kneeled on the floor amidst her severed hair, her breath forming puffs of mist in the cold air, eventually closing her eyes to fully enjoy the novel sensation. As Elve sat there for long minutes, working the muscles in her sore right hand, her left hand slid into her britches without much thought, finding the wet spot between her legs, and started stroking it firmly. The almost painful fire exploding in her loins, made her tense up and arch her back, and within moments Elve found herself masturbating vigorously while her free hand was running over her half bald head over and over.
She was her own woman. Yes, she was! Not some city boy’s trophy – no matter what her parents said. Elve grinned manically and sped up as she felt herself come closer to the edge. She was… She… She……. Her thought went blank as the peak of her orgasm washed over her, momentarily banishing anything but a glorious, burning sensation of relief.
When Elve came back to, gasping, she was lying on her back amid the severed hair, breathing heavily. She enjoyed the pleasantly warm tingling throughout her body for a little longer, just listening to the whisper of the cold night with a head almost empty of thought.
When she finally climbed back onto her knees, she felt exhausted, but determined. She had a job to finish.
More slowly and relaxed then before Elve returned to her work, strand by strand chopping off the hair on the back of her head. These spots were harder to reach, but eventually the last section came loose. Satisfied, she ran her hand over her bare head.
It was done.
She tried her best to collect the hair that lay spread out about her into a bundle, and slowly began her way back to the house. Elve found it hard to say how long she had been away, but the house lay as dark and quiet as she had left it. She was about to head to her room, but once again froze in the center of the sitting room. There was no snoring.
Quietly she turned to face her grandfather, who was sitting there, cloudy eyes wide open and pointed straight at her. For a long moment she dared to hope that he had not heard her, but then he spoke, his gruff voice at the edge between a whisper and a shout:
“What are you doing, girl, sneaking about in the middle of the night?! Where have you been…?”
She chewed her lip, anxious, unsure how to reply.
“Nowhere, I just got some fresh air. I’ll head to bed…”
“Nonsense.”, his judgment was unequivocal. “Come here girl.”
Hesitant, but compelled by instincts deeper than any rational thought, she stepped closer until she was right beside his chair. Before Elve had the chance to speak, his hand shot forward with surprising speed and clutched her jaw in a vice-like grip that belied his sickly old physic. She wanted to pull away, but his other hand was just as quick, feeling her face and slithering over her now bare head with inquisitive moves. Then, with an almost disgusted grunt the old man shoved her away, sneering in her direction. Although his blind eyes lay sunken in his skull, they seemed to dig into her as he stared after her.
“How dare you defy your parents?”, he spat. “If you knew what your father went through to get you this chance, you would crawl on your knees right now, begging God and all his angles for forgiveness.”
Elve swallowed hard and wanted nothing more than to run but could not bring herself to look away. “Lower your voice, Paps, you will wake the children.”, the whispered through clenched teeth, but to no avail. His voice seemed to become louder and shriller, almost hysterical, as he continued.
“But maybe this is his will already; shorn like the sheep you are. Dense, fit for nothing more than dying on the same pasture you were raised on, not ever willing to look beyond the next blade of grass to feast on…”
The old man was interrupted as the sharp scissors slammed into the heavy wooden side table next to him, Elve’s hand clenched tightly around their handles. Shocked at what she had just done, Elve was unable to speak for a long moment. The house around them lay silent, devoid of any noise but the faint crackling of the fire and both their heavy breathing. It was impossible that her mother hadn’t heard this. But another moment passed, and one more, and no sounds came from the sleeping chamber.
When Elve found her voice again, she whispered in a grim tone that she barely recognized as herself:
“I will go to the city, grandfather; and who knows, I might even marry that soldier boy that thater has picked out for me – but I will do it on my terms; do you understand? Now, would you be so kind and lower your voice? The children are sleeping, and we would not want to disturb them.”
“How dare you…?”, came the raspy retort, much quieter this time.
Without bothering to reply, Elve turned and quietly headed to the bedchamber – the heavy shears firmly embedded in the table behind her. Her shorn hair lay spread on the floor where she had dropped it and where, no doubt, her mother would find it in the morning. The thought made Elve smile, as she extinguished the candle and climbed into bed with her siblings.
Let me know what you think 🙂 I went for a full short story this time with proper characters etc. + a historical setting; something that we don’t have a lot of here.