by Erica Kent
My newlywed mother and father’s starter home came dirt cheap but not without two conditions; it had to be sold “sight unseen.” Nor were they allowed to meet the owner, a shut-in. On moving day they opened the front door to a pungent stench. Layers of curtains blocked out windows yellowed with grime. Dishes fuzzy with mold perched everywhere. Squirrels had overtaken the oven. Left behind on an end table in the living room were glasses and a Bible, as if the shut-in had been interrupted minutes earlier from holy reading and taken her cue to vanish.
From a bedroom closet, my father pulled out a ball of hair the size of a baby’s head—gold and brown strands wrapped in an endless globe. My mother and father laughed and laughed, perhaps not just at the head of hair, but the absurdity of their situation, how after a few months they’d wed, almost strangers, both unaware of what united them: the marble of a baby inside my mother. A whole little world of blood and fiber, as yet hairless.
Still laughing, they took up questions, trying to top the other: did the shut-in birth her head of hair as is? Or did she go around picking up cobwebs of strands, making the baby head piece by piece? If so, the head must have grown slowly, requiring the great patience of an artist. Still, the shut-in left her masterpiece behind. Wasn’t it precious enough to bring with her? Or perhaps it served as a parting message to the young couple. Here you go. This is your responsibility now.
Fifty years later, I’m that marble baby grown with my own shut-in tendencies and dirty house. I wonder about the shut-in and her head of hair. Bald or not bald, wherever she resettled, she must have felt exposed without the protection of a house she probably didn’t even consider dirty. It had all made sense to her, the squirrels and squalor, the Jesus of her Bible, all part of her private, one woman show. Did she miss the head of hair, grieve over that part of herself now gone? Or maybe its absence meant freedom, to start over with silver and gray strands, a version better suited for old age. My hair like her hair, silver, pale in sunlight. Only I do not gather it.
The shut-in’s long departed, the newlyweds long separated. I want to know what happened to the ball of hair but my father’s gone. My mother remembers only that there was a ball. She guesses they threw it out. Long disintegrated, it remains sight unseen, alive only in memory, not growing but not shrinking, strands of a world left behind in a dirty house made clean by the hands of strangers.
Erica Kent lives in Portland, Maine, with her family and chunky dogs. She’s a devoted but irreverent high school English teacher and tutor. She has an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her work has been published in StoryQuarterly, The Brooklyn Rail, Past Ten, Apple in the Dark, and The Maine Review.