Aunt Agatha wasn’t really my aunt. Nobody ever pretended she was. That’s just what everyone called her. But then, it didn’t matter much because I only saw her three or four times in my whole life (at least while she was alive) and nobody talked much about her. All I knew was that she was some kind of nun and that she was pretty scary. Not ugly and repulsive or anything. She was actually very beautiful in a cold way – and young. (At least no older than I am now.) She was just so foreign and quiet and outside of a kid’s understanding that she seemed ancient and otherworldly back then. Like she was from a different time or place.
When I was about 10 years old (I’m 33 now), Aunt Agatha took me aside into a quiet dark room in my grandmother’s house. (I never knew where Aunt Agatha lived – in a convent or abbey I guessed.) She looked at me closely with her clear, sky-blue eyes and held up the weird cross that hung around her neck. “Do you know what this is?” she asked me. I shook my head. Then she pulled back the white vestments from her head. Her blondish red hair was cut in a very short crewcut that grew thick as fur on her head. Her hair looked like my brother’s hair right after a trip to the barber’s in the summer. “This is a cross made of my own hair that was cut off a long time ago. Someday, it will belong to you. Please keep it safe. You’ll know what to do with it.” I kept looking at her hair as she pulled the headpiece back into place. It rippled under her graceful fingers. I wanted to touch it – feel the softness under my hand – before it disappeared, but I didn’t get the chance.
That was the last time I saw Aunt Agatha before she died a few years later. I remember my mother saying that only the good die young. I didn’t like that idea.
When I turned 18, my mother gave me a wooden box. It was engraved with odd Celtic-looking designs and what looked like letters or words that I couldn’t read. She said that this was a gift from Aunt Agatha to me and that I should take good care of it. My mother said this so seriously that I thought she was joking, and I almost started to laugh. But she wasn’t joking at all, so I was glad I kept a straight face as I opened the box. Inside was the cross made of Aunt Agatha’s hair, hanging on a fine gold chain.
I never wore the cross. I wasn’t religious, and it was too weird for jewelry. So I kept it in the wooden box, tucked back in a drawer. One morning last month, I woke up and went into the bathroom. As I looked in the mirror, I saw Aunt Agatha’s cross hanging around my neck. I ran over to the drawer where I kept the wooden box. The box was empty. So I took off the cross and put it back inside. I guessed I must have been sleepwalking or something. I tried not to think about it. When you live alone, you don’t want to spook yourself.
Later that day, coming out of my doctor’s office, I looked down the street. I was a little distracted at the time – the doctor had been a little evasive about my mammogram results – but I thought I saw a woman dressed all in white vestments walking along slowly and deliberately. It looked like Aunt Agatha from a distance. I tried to walk fast and catch up with the white figure ahead of me, but as fast as I walked, I never seemed to gain a step. I even ran a half a block, but the white figure always stayed as far distant as ever, never varying her slow, purposeful pace. I gave up and turned around. But as I walked to the subway station, I glanced back over my shoulder every so often. I kept catching a glimpse of white, but I never got a clear look at the person.
The next morning, I woke up with the hair cross around my neck again. When I touched it to take it off, I remembered a dream that I had had that night. I was in a beauty salon, all alone. I called out, but no one answered at all. I knew I had made an appointment, and I was concerned that I wouldn’t be able to get my hair cut. I walked up to a stylist’s station and saw her scissors and combs laid out on a piece of white linen. A pair of big black clippers hung from a hook. I remember that I picked up the clippers and thought about how heavy they were. I wanted to turn them on, but I couldn’t find the switch. I just kept running my fingers through my hair and wishing the clippers would turn on. Then I turned around and saw Aunt Agatha in the shop. She was standing very still with her hands stuck in either wide white sleeve in front of her. Her close-shorn head was uncovered, but there were blond locks of cut-off hair on the floor all around her. She nodded once or twice. That’s when I woke up.
Later that week, I passed a man’s barber shop. I had an odd inclination to walk in and ask for a haircut. I watched through the window as a man got a short crewcut from a woman barber. I watched the clippers moving over his head and around his ears. His normal businessman’s haircut was tumbling to the floor around him. His fine shorn head reminded me of a butterfly emerging from a cocoon as the clippers cleared more and more hair away – new life from something old and dead. I was sorry when the haircut was over. I started walking again. But I thought about that haircut a lot. I thought about making an appointment to get my own black curly hair cut. It needed it, but I never liked getting my hair cut. Luckily for me, my hair was so thick and curly that I needed to do very little with it. As long as I didn’t let it grow too long past my collar, it was very easy to keep. But I thought that I should call for an appointment soon anyway.
Two nights later, I woke up in the middle of the night. At least I think I woke up. I thought I saw Aunt Agatha standing by my bed, dressed in her white vestments but with her headpiece pulled back. It was dark, so most of what I saw was just a figure in white. But I thought I saw her close-cropped hair very clearly, saw the fine grain of the hair and the crisp outline around her ears and the nape of her neck. When my eyes cleared, I saw that what I thought was Aunt Agatha was just my robe hanging on the back of the bathroom door.
I went to the library that same day. I wanted to find out something about Aunt Agatha. I remembered only that my mother said that she belonged to the Orda Berenicia. I tried to look it up. I looked in every Christian and church-related book in the library. I found nothing. I did an internet search and asked the reference librarian for help. No mention of the Orda Berenicia or anything close. I wondered if my memory was defective or if my mother had gotten it wrong.
At work, I was sitting at my desk doing some cutting and pasting – the old-fashioned way, with real scissors and paste. I was thinking about something – I don’t remember what – and I absent-mindedly cut off a piece of my hair with the scissors. I don’t remember doing it. I remember hearing the crunching sound of the scissors going through my hair, and I remember seeing the 3-inch piece of black hair hitting the white papers on my desk and spilling into separate fine dark fibers. And I remember looking up in shock as Aunt Agatha stood in front of me, nodding her head. At least she was there for a blink of an eye. From that point forward, I was scared for real.
When I went home, I intended to take the hair cross and throw it out or burn it. I felt like Aunt Agatha was trying to take possession of me or something. I read Stephen King and I knew about stuff like that. So I took the cross out of the box and walked over to the wastebasket. Something distracted me for a second – I had to straighten some items on my dresser or something insignificant. After I finished, I noticed that I had put the cross around my neck. I took it off and threw it out.
The next morning, I woke up with the cross around my neck again. It stuck to my left breast as I pulled it off as fast as I could. I threw it out in the kitchen wastebin and closed the cover.
On the way to work that day, I looked at my reflection in the black windows of the subway car. The cross was around my neck, hanging over my left breast again. When I got to work, I closed my office door and took the cross off its chain. I got a metal wastebasket and cleared out all the papers. Then I lit a match, held it against the cross and tossed the burning twist of hair into the trash. I hoped no fire alarms would go off. They didn’t. I smelled a faint whiff of sweet fresh perfume coming from the wastebasket. All day long, anyone who came into my office complimented me on my new perfume. They said it smelled “healthy”. But I knew Aunt Agatha was gone now.
Except that walking to the subway that night, I thought I saw the figure in white, stalking me in the crowds along the street. I turned down a side street to get a better look and found myself in front of that same man’s barber shop. The woman barber was inside alone, sitting in the chair and reading a magazine. I walked away and found myself inside the shop. I meant to turn back toward the door and mumble some apologies, but instead I walked toward the barber chair and sat down.
“What can I do for you today?” she asked.
I tried to ask for a light trim, to even out the hair that I had cut accidentally at work. “Crewcut, please,” I heard myself say.
“Are you sure about that?” she asked with real concern.
I shook my head vigorously. I watched my head in the mirror nod “yes”. From that point on I couldn’t speak or move. I watched the barber lift the hair on the left side of my head with a wide-toothed comb and slide the clippers along. I felt a wave of black curls hit my shoulder. I could see my left ear. Next pass took the hair behind my ear. Not much looked like it was happening from what I could see in the mirror, but I could feel soft bundles of hair hitting my neck and could actually hear the cut-off hair hitting the floor. Then the right side of my head was cropped short. Black hair slid down the white cape in front of me. Standing in front of me, the barber lifted the hair on top of my head and sheared that off too, row by row, moving back over my crown. I couldn’t see in the mirror, but I felt the comb going through what was left of my hair more and more easily. There was little hair left there to resist.
When the clippers stopped, I thought the haircut was over. It wasn’t. The lady barber was just adjusting her blades. She moved behind me and pushed my head down, firmly but gently. The clippers made a new and more urgent sound. There was no combing now. I felt the machine being placed directly against my skin, the cool new blade quickly growing warm as it worked its way up my neck and the back of my head. I could see the barber casually flick the short shorn hair away at the top of each pass. Row by row my hair was being buzzed close to my head – but how close I couldn’t see. Until she moved to work the sides, and I saw the white scalp beneath the layer of black fur. I wanted to touch it, but I still couldn’t move. The barber changed her grip on the clippers and moved them over the top of my head. I could see the short hair, like mown hay, standing straight and erect next to the longer hair. Then the longer hair was gone too. Shaved bits of hair floated down around me as the top of my head vibrated under the clippers. The barber was careful to reserve the front of my hair for more careful clipper work. Again she used the comb, shaving the hair away that stood above the teeth. The front was left slightly longer than the 1/4 inch of hair everywhere else on my head – a little longer and squared off, to set off my widow’s peak.
Again, I thought the haircut was over, but the barber returned again with a different clipper and carefully tapered the hairline, moving the clippers up into my crewcut and then pulling them away as they rose just high enough. I felt them kiss my sideburns gently and move away again. Finally, the cape was lifted, and a black avalanche of hair rolled to the floor. My former black curls were everywhere. I paid the barber and left, not touching my head until I was half a block down the street. I liked the feel of the stiff soft bristles, though the shock of my hairlessness that reflected back in every window took my breath away. I especially liked the feel of the shaven nape, and the way the hair grew slightly longer and felt heavier as I ran my fingers up over the back of my head. But as much as I loved my crewcut, I was dreading Aunt Agatha. Now I knew that she had won.
When I got home, I realized that I was clutching a long lock of my hair in my hands. That night, while sitting at the table, I was playing with that hair. Without knowing how, I had twisted it into a new hair cross. I left it on the table.
That night I had a dream. I dreamt that Aunt Agatha came to me and put the new, black hair cross around my neck, carefully placing it right over my left breast. Her headgear was gone and her own light crewcut was a pale reflection of my own. We looked like sisters. I admired the crispness of her hairline and how the thick short blonde hair piled at her nape. I remember hoping that my own hair looked as good. Then Aunt Agatha nodded and stepped back. She said something I didn’t understand – something like, “Pass it along, sister. You are done.” I guessed she meant that I was cursed or doomed or under her control. I thought I should be afraid. Somehow I wasn’t. Of course, when I woke up, the new hair cross was hanging around my neck. I left it there. Aunt Agatha had won.
I left work early the next day. I had a doctor’s appointment. He took follow-up set of mammograms and then made me wait for 45 minutes. Then he took another series. Finally, I was called into the doctor’s office.
“Please sit down, Grace. I thought I would be saying something very different today.” I noticed him looking at my hair. Maybe not just looking. He seemed to be admiring. Normally, I would have liked that, but his serious tone of voice disturbed me.
“Frankly, your last set of x-rays showed a problem. At least we thought it was a problem. There is definitely a mass shown in that series. A large mass in your left breast. Quite advanced from the look of it. I even ran an enhanced series and even had a colleague read them to confirm my suspicions. That’s the reason I didn’t say anything last time. But when we looked today, it was gone. Just not there at all.”
I was gripping the cross in my right hand. My knuckles were white. “What are you saying?” I asked.
“Well, most importantly, I’m saying you’re fine. Clean bill of health. I want to see you again in 6 months just to be safe, but today we took pictures from every angle, and there’s simply nothing there. Nothing to be concerned about at all.”
“So the last series was a mistake? There was something wrong with the machine or something?”
The doctor paused. “No. I don’t think that’s the case. There was definitely something in those x-rays – something in your left breast. Something bad. It’s just… not there now. It’s gone. But the body can do amazing things. It can cure itself in ways we simply don’t understand yet.”
Cure. I had been cured. Something had cured me. Cured. That was all that kept echoing in my head as I stood to shake the doctor’s hand. The hair cross fell from my hand and dangled in front of me.
“Hey, I haven’t seen one of those in a long time. Not since med school.” The doctor cradled the cross in his hand. “What was it again? Oh right – the Orda Berenicia. One of my professors was writing a history of medicine. I helped him with his research. This was a symbol of an ancient order that one of Caesar’s lieutenants came across in Britain and wrote home about. Wow. This brings back memories.” Orda Berenicia. So my mother was right after all.
“So they were witches or something?” I asked.
“No, no, no. Nothing like that. My teacher wouldn’t have been interested in anything like that. Apparently they were a healing order in pre-Roman Britain. Doctors of a sort. Very advanced for their time. As I recall, it was women only. They dressed all in white. Oh, and they had shaved heads I think. And they were supposed to have been able to work miracle cures. Hope of the hopeless. That sort of thing.”
I saw the doctor looking at my buzzed head oddly.
“Miracles,” I repeated. How blind I had been.
“But that’s all anyone knows,” the doctor added. “They’ve been gone for centuries.”
I didn’t say anything more. I just thanked the doctor again and left the inner office. While I was filling out some papers at the nurse’s desk, I looked over at a young girl who was looking at me. She was staring at my crewcut. I smiled. She smiled back. Then she said, “My mommy says I have to get my hair cut off like yours.”
I smiled again and said, “I’m sure you’ll be beautiful.”
The little girl prattled on. “My mom says they’ll have to cut my hair off for the ‘peration and the medicine I’ll have to take might make it fall out anyway.”
I winced and said, “Well, I know the doctor will make you all better real soon.” I looked over at the girl’s mother for confirmation. There wasn’t any there. I looked at the nurse. She turned away and stared down fixedly at some blank forms on the desk.
Then I understood.
I took the cross from around my neck and put it on the little girl. “Take this for luck,” I said. The mother protested, but I insisted. Then I told the little girl that after she got her hair cut off, she should take some home. “Maybe you’ll be able to make a little cross just like this one,” I said. “Once you do that, throw this one away and wear your own for luck. Won’t that be fun?”
The little girl smiled again. “I don’t think I’ll know how,” she said. “Well, just look at this one, and try your best. My Aunt Agatha taught me, even though I don’t remember how.” Then I left.
As I walked down the corridor, I looked over my shoulder. I glimpsed the back of a woman dressed all in white going into the doctor’s office. Maybe it was just a nurse.