firenze tuesday (120)They kept them on their dressers, hidden beneath the edge of a doily or in a trinket box.  Aunt Leona’s was the first I saw, before bed one weekend when I was spending the night.  We were listening to old hymns on AM radio, what a friend we have in Jesus and the torments of the grave and that wondrous home in the sky.  She was taking down her hair from its bun on the back of her head, dislodging her covering and pulling out pins and dismantling her twist of dark hair until it fell and bounced in a long coil down her back. She, like her sisters and mother, had magic hair. Take it down and they each un-aged ten years.  It caught the light like corn silk and smelled of flowers from far away.  They washed it in the basement in a cold dark room with a drain at its center, ladling cups of warm water from a white metal basin on a wooden chair and pouring it in black streams over their heads.  They wrapped it in cream-colored towels which they later removed, unwinding the cloth like bandages.

In the bedroom that night, Leona plunged her hands into the dark hive and undid herself, pulling from somewhere deep in her head a thick disc of matted hair that fit in her palm.  She placed it on her dresser in a crystal dish. I imagined my cat Shingles hunched and wheezing up a thing.  This was her hair patty.

I did not know why she had a hair patty, but I stared at it as the radio glowed on about walking in gardens, hand in hand with the Lord.  I expected the patty of hair to pulse or, better, roll down the dresser top and start devouring little glass doggy or his owner, little glass boy.  I poked it.

“Oh, that,” she said, hand over her mouth as she smiled because she didn’t like her crooked teeth. “That’s a little thing I use sometimes when I need more hair in my bun, you know, to make the bobby pins stick.  You have to collect your hairs from your brush and then ball them all up together.”  She brushed her hair, a black mirror down the center of her back, shined with palmfuls of cream rinse.   I picked up her hair patty.  It squished between my fingers, and I tried to comprehend how this was part of my aunt, actual pieces from her body she collected and kept on a crystal dish on her dresser. It was some sort of horrific and beautiful magic, like bread turned to flesh.

I laid under the covers that night thinking about it, about licking the last drop of what would soon be Jesus’ blood from the curved glass at the bottom of a communion cup and my father’s voice spreading out from the pulpit like a layer of white clouds over the heads of the congregation on a Sunday morning and how that one time in the car on the way home from church I’d puked in an empty Folger’s Coffee can and when I looked it was electric green liquid and so miraculously pretty I had to show it to everyone in the car and somehow all that had to do with the hair patty, how I felt about it, and I wasn’t sure if that was okay.

Rachel Yoder is in her final year of the Nonfiction Writing Program at the University of Iowa where she also serves as senior editor for Defunct Magazine. Her writing currently appears in the anthologies Best of the Web 2010 and The Rumpus Women, as well as The Collagist. She is a founding editor of draft: the journal of process, which features short stories, first drafts, and author interviews.  She recently blogged about this essay’s origins here at the Brevity blog.

Photo by Dinty W. Moore