by Sara Kachelman
from BWR 46.2
A reading by the author
I found my mother’s hair on a foam head at Wigland. It lit up the downtown window display. Above it a sign said: the last true redhead. It was referring to my mother. She was the last true redhead, and now she was dead. We had buried her only days before.
I went inside to sniff the scalp. The wig was teased a foot tall and smelled of formaldehyde, but I knew it was hers. It was the color of blood after it sets.
My mother survived every other redhead in the world and died with the punctuation of that singular title, the Last. Around her, gunmen felled the redheads neatly in the air or poached them into reclusion, but my mother sought protection in the high visibility of adult film. She lived to maturity and even bore offspring, two heads matte black, my sister and I, and there the line ended. Her hair was the fossil that proved extinction.
It was now selling at Wigland for one hundred dollars. I tried to snatch the wigs but it was stuck to the foam head on which a robot had painted a stunned, sexless mien. The head dangled from my hand as the wig guard, a small person in a clinician’s coat and cap, ran over swinging a broom handle.
—Stop right there, she said. That wig is real hair.
—I know, I said. It’s my mother’s.
The wig guard held the broom handle erect. Her body tensed around her weapon, a single muscular hinge.
—Sir, step away from the wig, she said. No homeless allowed.
She thought I was homeless. In fact, I was a woman.
—I will count to three, she said. Then I will swing.
We righted our postures. She panted loudly out of her mouth.
I presented myself.
She socked my left breast. I was wearing seven sweaters and felt only a dull nudge. Satisfied, she did not strike again. The wig was mine. I gathered the whole head under my arm like a football and took my leave.
People cleared the sidewalks as I rushed by, mashing the hair into its original shape. The rain helped. I had to calm it down. The wig was not calm. I told it that I knew everything, that I should have suspected it, that I was so sorry. Because I knew there was only one person who coveted the hair enough to commit the perfect crime: my own sister. K had plucked each hair from our dead mother’s head and sold it to Chinatown. She was not above it. K was a crook. She lived in a split-level house full of stolen hoards. She and her boyfriends took turns putting out household fires and selling each other’s bodies for pills.
She sold out our dead mother. I had been nursing a new grudge against K, a dawdling infant grudge that was growing man-sized and malignant. K had sold our mother’s funeral to a syndicated variety show. Our mother, who in recent years had been shy about her celebrity, was at least spared this last circus. Mother’s brief film appearances looped on twenty-foot screens above her casket. Our mother in a robe, answering the door. Our mother in a dirndl, delivering milk.
Our mother in a sweater, shelving books. K edited out the actual porn. All around us the crowd wept in a stadium-sized church. Hired mourners replaced our unattractive relatives. TV cameras filled the balcony with a high-pitched drone. “Accidental overdose,” my sister said at the podium. The reporters chased me into the crypt, where I hid, envious, among the dead.
My mother was buried in the blue suit she was married in, her red hair fanned out around her. Her only adornment was her dull pearl earrings, the only thing K hadn’t stolen from her before she died. At least she looked right for the photos.
Where was our mother now, stripped in her grave, a rubber chicken?
I took the wig head home with me to my eyrie on the river cliffs. I hiked up a goat path on the gray limestone slopes, through the scrubby hedges to an overhang where predatory birds made their perch. My nest was built in the hip of that rock. The tall sides were made of straw and string. The soft inner bowl I lined with golf shirts and poly-fil. I covered the walls with tin foil and arranged my collections in the corners—lightbulbs, mattress springs, teeth—which I cleaned and ordered each day. It was all held together with clay and saliva.
The wig would be safe there. I tied the head to a stack of old televisions and made my preparations. On hands and knees I chased all dirt and animals from the nest. I rubbed myself with herbs in the river bed. I cut my hair and oiled my bald scalp until it hummed. Then I dressed myself in my best garment, a white linen sheet, and I began my vigil before the wig. I waited in bowed silence for three days and three nights for it to speak.
And then it did.
—Whoooo owns the dead? asked the wig.
—Mother? Is that you?
Mother’s voice had changed in death. It sounded like many Mothers speaking at once through a shortwave radio.
—Hold on, I’m getting static, I said, and adjusted the head on its altar.
—Whoooo owns the dead? she said again.
—Why…no one, Mother.
—If that is true, what does the dead own?
—This is about your hair, I said.
—No, my daughter—
—Please. Say no more, I said.
I knelt before the head, calling upon every book I had ever read to make the following speech:
—O holy mother, I know why you have come. I know it is up to me, the only honorable knight of your own blood, to restore your ravaged burial. No longer shall you wander the earth in fruitless gloomth, searching for the hair to make you whole again. The crook your daughter may have spoilt your property, but she did not spoil your honor. I accept this quest, and hereby swear to avenge your name.
The wig seemed distracted. Thinking I lost the signal, I slapped the head a few times before it replied.
—Young Hamlet, it began, but her voice dissolved into fuzz.
—Speak up, I said.
—Young Hamlet, the dead exist only in the living.
A wave of static crashed through the nest, setting my mobiles and whirligigs in a violent frenzy. She had left me for the spirit world after so short a stay. Uncouth! Who was this wise Mother, and what did she require? I had no memory of her reading Chaucer, or any book. But her request had been clear enough: K would pay.
I took the bus to my sister’s split level with the head under my arm. K lived on a landfill-cum-golf course. All along the street, garage doors opened and closed, expelling identical black SUVs. Built on a hill, K’s house looked like one box sliding off another. A speedboat rusted on the lawn, and the satellite dish on the roof dwarfed the crumbling chimney. It looked like no one was home. The blinds were tightly closed, and spiders had colonized the porch. But I soon felt dim vibrations in the floorboards. K opened the door before I could knock and hurled me inside, chaining three heavy padlocks behind her.
—Expecting someone? I asked.
—No one special, she said.
K looked wired, like she had slept with her eyes open. She led me up one set of steep abortion stairs to the kitchen, a dumping ground of packages she had stolen from her neighbor’s porches. The place was a maze, but K had always been a hoarder. As a child, she would bury her valuables behind the shed at our old house. She dug around in the refrigerator and drew out two vials of black liquid.
—What is it? I asked.
I gulped it down.
—It’s got coke in it, she said.
K gestured for me to sit down on what looked like a tanning bed. I made a space for myself among the packages.
—You decided to come for a visit, she said.
—This is not a visit, I said. This is a quest.
K eyed the wig.
—How much they give it to you for?
—I just took it, I said.
—You owe me a hundred dollars.
She held out her hand, knowing that I had not touched money in years.
—Come on, K, you sold her out, I said.
—The network paid for the funeral, she said. Were you going to pay for it?
She crossed her arms and leaned back on the counter.
—No, she said. Look at you. You look like a man.
I looked phenomenal. My razed head tingled under the ceiling fan.
—Our mother is getting buried with her hair, I said. It’s her legacy.
—Our mother was a porn double, K said. They barely showed her face. You can watch it for free on the internet. She dyed her hair since she was our age, anyway, and everyone knows it.
—False, I said. You can’t get this in a bottle.
I held the wig up to the light. In truth, it did look a little flat.
—I won’t waste time arguing when she can speak for herself, I said, standing up.
I put the wig head on the butcher block and waited.
—Mother, are you there? I asked.
I moved the head this way and that, listening for static, but none came.
I gave the head a good shake.
—What am I supposed to be looking at, K said.
—There was a message, I said. Just listen.
I sucked in my lips and closed my eyes. I could hear a high-pitched electric hum not unlike a tea kettle. Just as I exhaled, a car crashed into the garbage cans in the driveway. Multiple door slams. The barking of men.
—Get down! said K. I’m on the lam!
—Those your boyfriends? I asked.
—We broke up, she said.
—With which one?
—With all of them, now shut up! she said.
It was the doom raid she had expected when I showed up. She crawled over to the window and raised a blind. I saw she was debating whether she would leave me as meat. But I knew my sister. The only thing she hated more than me was all men.
—Come on, she said, grabbing the wig.
I tried to snatch it from her hands but she dodged and crashed into the wall. I tumbled over her, knocking over a pile of moldy magazines.
K pulled me into a closet off the hall and slammed the door behind us. Our mother’s blue suit was hanging in a plastic sleeve. I yanked it with me as I followed her through a tiny panel behind the hot water heater. We entered a dark, narrow tunnel lit by dim sconces.
Water dripped from the pipes overhead, and cave crickets coursed up the walls. K wrenched the panel back into place behind us and raced headlong down the tunnel, the wig under her arm.
—K! What is going on? I demanded.
But she had already turned the corner. I had no choice but to follow her. Behind me I could hear the men knock down the door, yelling for K. There was no way to determine how many men there were.
The legion tearing down her walls could just as easily have been one man, one furious man. It no longer mattered what he wanted or what K could have done. In my mind this man absorbed the rage of every man who had ever hurt us, until he was bigger than the house itself, and the tunnel shook with his weight.
After a few minutes of running I was slowed by doubts. The tunnel sunk into a shallow pool, where I paused to catch my breath. Had K abandoned me here, in a maze of her own design? Would she come back for me? My garment was smeared with dirt and the bag containing my mother’s blue suit was covered in condensation. I listened to the faint street sounds overhead. We must have traveled west, away from the golf course and toward town. I couldn’t track the time. The tunnel had widened into a dark pool fed by exposed pipes. Brown liquid sputtered out of the openings at odd intervals.
—You louse! I said, pacing before the pool. The vein on my neck pulsed. I had one responsibility: the wig. Now K had the wig, under the guise of helping me restore the wig to Mother, hence K has stolen the wig from me after I had stolen the wig from the wig guard after K had plucked the wig from our mother’s corpse.
Every minute I paused was a minute K gained. Had the wig survived the pool? I looked for footprints in the mud and found the imprint of K’s rhinestone sneaker. The sight of her child-sized footprint filled me with rage. Was she communicating with the wig without me? Had she sold it already to an unnamed henchman? I held the suit over my head and waded into whatever ploy that awaited me.
The mud sucked in my feet with each step. Foreign shapes floated in the water, and creatures made of twitching legs clung to my clothes. When I arrived, shivering, on solid ground, I was covered in insects. Shaking myself off, I ran until I saw a light shining on the wall of the tunnel. The passage widened into a cavernous room I recognized as the church crypt.
The tombs were trashed. Some of them were wide open, others half sunk. Bits of clothing and jewelry were scattered about, the ones K warranted too cheap to sell. The bodies themselves were wrangled, trampled, their skin peeling like wet newspaper. My eyes and nose streamed from the smell. K sat in the middle of it all, a dragon coiled on its trove. In the crook of her elbow she held the wig. My sister was the overlord of the grave robbers.
Lying in front of her was our mother. The skin was nearly transparent, and the veins had all leaked into each other. I paused, unable to come any closer.
—Let’s see it, said K. Let’s see you finish your quest.
I felt unable to move, staring into my mother’s eyes.
—You could ruin them, I said, pointing around. But her?
K took the suit out of my hands and discarded the bag.
—You sound just like her, she said. Do you think you are doing this for her? It was never about her. It’s about you. Look at you, standing there with your morals. You’re a beggar!
—Stop talking like a villain, I said. You are not a villain.
But K was fully immersed in her role. Her voice took on a Hollywood cadence and her plastic surgery was showing.
—She never wanted us. She never gave us anything. That’s why we were always fighting for scraps. There was only enough for one of us. That’s why I steal, because I deserve more. That’s why you hoard trash, because that’s all you think you’re worth.
I slapped K across the face. Her eyes welled up and she touched her cheek. She looked like a child, and I felt a horrible tenderness creeping in.
—Sorry, I said.
—I am mad at you, said K.
—I am mad at you, too, I said.
I wondered if she would attack me. She was wondering also. But when she raised her hand it was only to brush her hair back into place.
We began to dress our dead mother. I guided the suit out of its plastic sleeve, then we slid the skirt up our mother’s bloated ankles. The feet were blue and warped and I gagged when I touched them. The body was so stiff we ripped the slit of the skirt up the middle and gathered the torn fabric around her sunken hips.
—Help me, I said.
—Look, said K. I only take the stuff off. I never put it on.
The arms were impossible to maneuver into the blouse. We pulled our mother’s torso back and forth until I was afraid we would rip her and gross stuff would pour out. We wound up laying the suit on top of her like a tablecloth for murderers.
K tried to pull the wig off the foam head, but she only ripped out gluey handfuls, so I put the whole head in the casket on top of my mother’s rigid arms.
I closed the tomb. I did not want to smell this place anymore. The half-dressed corpse was obscene, and the whole quest felt like a terrific failure.
K led me up a set of stairs into the church. It was blessedly empty.
—Let’s go, said K, and guided me out the door and up to the river cliffs, to my own home.
—Look at this dump, she said when we got to the nest. I don’t know how you people live like this.
She examined my collections. My dead plants, my mattress springs. K picked up each object and returned it out of order. She could not see the patterns. And that seemed to be the entire problem.
—What do you eat? she asked.
—Sometimes I am driven to kill dogs, I said.
We went to bed without dinner. I stoked a fire in the pit between us.
It was a clear night, and the river was calm at the bottom of the cliff.
Birds of prey passed in giant arcs around us, feeding their young in nearby nests. Occasionally they would get close, and snatch the foil lining my home with their needle-sharp beaks. I was accustomed to their snap movements, the surreal ticking of their necks as they fixed me in their gaze. When I climbed up the hill to my home, I often saw parts of my nest woven in theirs. I would forever live among thieves.
K closed her eyes. She had never asked for my shelter; she had merely taken it. No one would look for her here. There was comfort in knowing the familiar demons we faced in our mother would persist as we mothered each other.
I awoke shortly after midnight to turn the coals. The wind had picked up, but K was still sleeping. The whirligigs began to spin, and the moon came down from a hole in the tarp and lit up K’s slackened mouth. It glinted like an oracle. What was it? A gold tooth? A wedding ring? I peered deep into the mouth of my sister. A light sleeper, she stirred. Just as she opened her eyes, I sunk my fingers under her tongue and withdrew what I was looking for: two dull pearls.
Sara Kachelman’s stories are forthcoming in The Columbia Review and Tammy. She is an MFA Writing candidate at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Contact her at sarakachelman.com.
Photo credit: Isa Salazar