Fable: Metamorphosis

Some time ago, I began a project called “Dramas and Fables.” It was going to be a collection of short pieces. I left it off, with the demands of work and graduate school. I still have the pieces I wrote, and among my other projects, am turning back to them. Here’s one of them

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One morning—a Tuesday morning, in fact—Allison woke up to find that all her hair had fallen out. It lay spread out about her in a red halo on her pillows. At first, dazed as she was from pulling out of a strange dream, she wasn’t quite sure what was happening. She noticed the room’s cool air brushing over her bare scalp, and thought it odd, somehow out of place. She almost put her hand to her head, but held it back; whether she did so out of fear or just a change of mind she was never sure. She sat up in the bed, and felt lighter, her head not weighed down by the falling locks of red curls that used to grace her. She looked down on her pillow, and saw her hair there, strands and strands of it, almost fully covering her pillow, red hair on a sparkling white pillowcase. She looked at her hair for a long time, the gross reality of the situation barely registering on her mind. “That’s my hair,” she said, in a tiny, almost meek voice—which fit, because she usually had a tiny, meek voice, except now it was tinier, even more timid as the terrible nature of what had occurred to her began to imprint itself. “That’s my hair,” she repeated, as if saying the words, giving speech to the event could make it more comprehensible. She finally brought her hand to her head, running it over her bare scalp; her brow rose in consternation as she brushed her scalp again and again, caressing it the way, well, the way a bald man would, the way she’d seen her father do in times of stress and frustration, from the hairline at almost the base of the skull forward, slowly, over the forehead and down over the eyes, trying to expel whatever disturbing thoughts had collected during the day. Her fingers danced over the supple, soft skin, her palm pressed on the smooth surface. It was as if, of a sudden, the individual strands of her hair had decided collectively to evacuate her scalp, follicles and all, detaching themselves like the stages of a rocket, leaving her head completely, without a trace. It was quite odd, and she had no means by which to process the significance of the incident. What would she do?  Was there some remedy to be had?  Should she collect her stranded hair, perhaps to make a wig out of it—it would still be her hair, after all, just translated to another form of existence. She brought her hand to her chest and clutched at her pajama top, the experience suddenly becoming too much for her, the enormity of it finally dawning on her. “That’s my hair,” she let out in a raspy scream.

She called in sick that day. And the day after. In fact, she took the rest of the week off, pleading a sudden flu, a very bad, intense illness that left her barely able to phone her office, much less actually shower and dress and go into work. Since the office had recently been ravaged by a virus, her supervisors accepted her excuse without question, and wished her a speedy recovery. She would lay in bed, day after day, the shades drawn, her knees drawn up under her chin, slightly rocking. She had collected her hair and put it into an empty shoe box, not really being sure what was appropriate for such circumstances. Surely she wasn’t the only person to whom this had happened?  There must be others!  When energy permitted she would scour the Internet, searching for anything that could hint at a sudden, catastrophic hair loss. Her efforts yielded no results. She couldn’t find her case in any medical literature. She was truly alone.

She kept putting off her boyfriend, Frank. “I don’t understand why I can’t come by and take care of you.”  “I’m contagious, that’s why, and I don’t want you getting sick.”  “But I’m willing to take the risk.”  “I just don’t want you here!”

She put off Frank, and she put off work. She didn’t return to work the following Monday, nor the Tuesday after. The phone would ring, insistently, and her boss would leave messages on her answering machine whose sense of increasing concern was matched only by an equally increasing fury. Finally, the calls stopped coming. Provisions soon began to run out—Allison was a stickler for fresh food, she kept very little on hand, preferring to go out to the store to get whatever she needed for that evening. She was subsisting on saltines when there was a knock on her door, a knock of some authority.

“Hello. It’s the police!  Please open up.”

Allison pressed up against the door, the wood cool on her bare temple.

“What is this about, officer?  I didn’t phone the police department. In point of fact, I haven’t phoned anyone in quite a few days. I’ve been unwell.”

Frank’s voice came from outside. “Allison, please open up. We’re all worried about you.”

“Frank!  Go away!  I don’t want to see anyone!”

She heard some muffled conversation, then a key going into the lock. No!  Her building manager!  She felt a gorge of fear rise up in her throat, as she desperately thought what to do to prevent the people outside from gaining entry. But she had no lock on the door but the one that her manager easily opened, pushing the door ajar, the police swinging it fully open, to reveal her standing there, in a robe, bald, weeping.

Frank looked at her, nonplussed for just the barest of moments, but then went up to her, sweeping her up into his arms, cradling her, rubbing her smooth pate, pushing aside whatever discomfort he might feel at seeing his lover so denuded. “There, there, it’ll be all right, don’t you worry,” and other such blandishments. Part of Allison wanted to scream at Frank and tear away from him, livid that he would interrupt her pain. The other half, though was tired, and hungry, and a bit unkempt, and just wanted a hot shower and a good meal. So she went to bathe, and she dressed, and tied a scarf around her head and let Frank take her out to eat.

Slowly, over weeks, she slowly became used to her new state. At first she peered obsessively in the mirror, rubbing her head to feel for new growth. None came. When the police had broken down her door the hair had still been laying on her pillow, undisturbed from the moment from when it had fallen out. She had been sleeping on the couch, afraid to go back to bed, afraid of what else would happen to her there. Frank, in a gesture of open-handedness she had never expected from him, went and bought her an entirely new bed—no, a new bedroom suite, removing all traces of the old, ill-omened furniture. She slept in her own bed for the first time in weeks, and slept the entire night dreamlessly. Her job would have fired anyone else, but her work record had been so exemplary that they had kept her job open for her, sure that there was some explanation. They took her back unreservedly, her misfortune more than justifying itself. Slowly, her life went back to normal. She even stopped looking at her hair, which she had placed in an old hat box. At first she had placed it on her dresser, within easy reach; but, after a few weeks, she stuffed it into her closet, in the back, behind boxes, sheets, towels, so jumbled up that she couldn’t quite remember where she’d put it, and could find it with only the greatest difficulty.

However, her head still looked like a smooth cantaloupe. There was no getting around it. Her hair wasn’t coming back, and she couldn’t very well go and get herself a wig; everyone would know it was a wig, and she would feel like her elementary school principal, a nun of the old school thrust blinkingly into the modern world, made to wear business suits and lose the habit, which meant wearing a wig to cover her shorn head. No, that wouldn’t do. But she had to do something.

One day, as she was wont to do, she was browsing through wire service pictures on the Internet. She came across a bald woman—how she became bald wasn’t stated—with curling green vines tattooed on her bare skull. She looked at the picture, transfixed by it. This was nothing like the tattoos her father had—smudgy, monochromatic affairs from his days in the service. This tattoo was alive, pulsing with the energy of the vine, winding around, turning what was an empty space into something else, something significant, something to be looked at and talked about, not something merely to be pitied. She felt her breath quicken: so that was what it felt like to have an epiphany. She was supposed to meet Frank for coffee, but called to cancel it, pleading a workload she had taken home with her, then quickly grabbed her keys and coat, driving to a well-known tattoo parlor on the Strip, a printout of the picture in hand, and, going in, slapped it down on the counter and said “I want this!”  For the first time since her hair had fallen out she felt a sense of direction. She wasn’t being led around the day, going through the routine of her previous life. Finally, something to reflect her new circumstances!  She hadn’t realized just how much it would hurt—oh, how it hurt!  But she grimaced through it, and after the trickles of blood were washed away she looked at herself in the proffered mirror, and smiled, beamingly, peace descending upon her.

She felt giddy, elated with life for the first time since that morning long before. She called Frank to make sure he was home, telling him she was taking a break and going over. She rushed to his house, on the way getting an appreciative honk from a group of young boys stopped next to her at a red light. “Man, you’re cool—great tattoo!”  She smiled and waved, her face blushing, and drove faster to Frank’s place, wanting to throw him down on the floor, making love to him with a passion she’d never had before. She parked and raced to the front steps of his house, pounding on his door.

He opened it and looked at her.

“Oh my god,” he said, “what have you done?”

Her pride in seizing control of life would not be dissuaded by a minor question. “Wha?  Oh, I just saw this picture, and it was so amazing, I felt a rush, I felt like this was what I’d been looking for all this time. I feel—I feel beautiful. I never felt that way even when I had hair.”

“You look—you look like a freak,” he shrieked, disgust and a bit of horror clearly playing on his face. “I wanted you to go back to being normal—to being the way you were before. I bought you the new bed and furniture so you’d go back to sleeping in your room, rather than like a permanent guest in your own home. I didn’t—this is absurd!  How can I be seen with you in public like this?”

Allison felt her temple throb. Before that moment it would’ve appeared merely as a throbbing vein pulsing under bare skin. But now a stalk of green vine hid it, and it seemed as if the vine itself was throbbing, pulsing with life, energy coursing through it, the vein throbbing greenly, verdantly, the vein of vine almost seeming to move.

“Well, I see,” she said. “And I’m sorry for you. I’m not sorry for me.”  She turned on her heel and walked back to her car. She got in and drove off. And, maybe it was the time of night, maybe it was a trick played on him by the two glasses of wine he’d had earlier that evening, but he could swear, almost swear, that the last thing he saw as she drove off was the tattoo, brilliantly green in the dark of her car.

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