Circe By Mobmij
My wife died in January. We had no kids. She was everything to me. After she was gone, I spent a year sleepwalking through life. Then some friends of mine convinced me to go on a vacation with them – to get my mind off things.
We went to Greece, plane-hopping around the small rocky islands that dot the Aegean. We planned to spend 4 days on Pilessanos, some tiny island I had never heard of and couldn’t even find on a map.
After we arrived and got settled into our inn, I wanted some time alone, so I went for a walk around the small town. I say “town” but it was really just a small fishing village. Tourists were infrequent. The inn was just the local taverna with a few rooms on a second story. My friends and I filled all those rooms. The inn and all the buildings were startlingly white, bleached by the bright Mediterranean sun.
As I walked along the few streets of the town, I passed an open doorway. Alongside the doorway, in faded paint on the whitewashed walls, were the familiar red-and-white stripes of a barber shop. I looked in the open door and saw a young woman with long black hair sitting in a barber chair. When she saw me, she stood up and motioned toward the chair, holding a barber’s cape over her arm. I just smiled and shook my head and walked on.
That night, my friends and I were eating dinner outside the taverna. My friends were stuffing themselves like pigs, but I didn’t have much of an appetite. Then the woman from the shop walked by wearing a long white dress tied with a red sash. She looked over at me and smiled – just a small smile of recognition, nothing more – but never stopped or slowed down. Her hair trailed out behind her in the sea breeze, a few tendrils trailing in front of her face.
The next day I went for another walk. Somehow I found myself in front of the barber shop again. I hadn’t meant to go there, but I did. The shop looked empty. This time I walked through the doorway. The air inside was cool and comfortable. It looked like any other barber shop. I had expected something old and primitive. But there were shiny scissors and fresh-looking combs on the shelf. Hanging on hooks under the shelf were large clippers – older-looking but well kept. As I looked around, the girl came out of a back room. Her hair was tied in a loose bun. She smiled and pointed to the chair.
“Please. Sit,” she said.
“You speak English?” I asked.
“A little,” she answered. Though she had no trace of an accent.
“I’m really not here for a hair…” The girl didn’t listen. She just took me gently by the arm and led me into the barber’s chair. I didn’t resist. Then she tied the cape around my neck and ran her hand through the hair on my neck. In fact, I could have used a haircut. My hair was past my collar and a little sloppy on top. My wife had always cut my hair for me. After she died, I had never found anyone to do it as well as she did, and I tended to let it grow too long since I never liked it much after it was cut.
“Too long,” the girl said. Then she picked up a comb and began combing through my hair. “Too hot,” she said. She took one of the big clippers from under the shelf and snapped it on.
“What are you…?”
“Shush,” she said. “You need this.”
I felt her put the comb in my hair, right at my nape, and run the clippers over it. Then again, higher up on my head. Clumps of hair tumbled down, some landing on my shoulders. I wanted to stop her, but I also wanted her to go on. I liked the feel of the comb through my hair. I liked the hum of the clippers raking over the comb. I liked the feel of her body, pressing against me.
More and more of my hair was falling around me. The girl never hesitated an instant, just pushing the comb into my hair and buzzing off whatever stood up through the teeth. Eventually, I could see in the dusty mirror what was going on. I was getting a crewcut – not too short and nicely shaped. She was doing it all without the use of the clipper guides that I saw the barbers use when I was a boy. I felt my head seeming to change shape, getting smaller and smaller. The sound of the comb changed as it passed through the short hair that was left behind. Finally, she ran the comb all through my newly buzzed hair, looking at it from different angles and applying the clippers directly – but very carefully – to some stray longer hairs. Then she was done.
I stood up and more hair rolled to the floor. I ran my hand over my new crewcut and smiled. I liked to feel of it. I offered to pay, but the girl just smiled. “Next time,” she said. “Takes much care this short.” I offered again and she pushed my hand away. So I shrugged and left the shop.
Back out in the hot sun I kept rubbing my head in appreciation. I stopped in front of a shop with a large glass window to admire my own reflection. I liked the shape of my head and the feel of the closely tapered sides and back and the angled edges toward the longer flattened front.
My friends were shocked at my transformation, kidding me about it. But I think they liked it for real.
The next day, I was at the beach. The warm water felt good – especially good as I brushed my hair dry with just my hand. But the hair felt softer, like it had lost its sharpness. On the way back to the inn, I separated from my friends and walked back to the barber shop.
The girl was standing in front of the big mirror. There was a large bowl on the shelf in front of her and her white dress was down off her shoulders. As my eyes adjusted to the darker interior, I saw what she was doing. She carefully lathered one underarm with a shaving brush. Then she took a straight razor and deftly shaved her underarm clean. A few short scrapes and there was barely any shaving cream left behind. When she had finished the first armpit, she spoke without even turning around.
“Please come here and help me.”
I walked over to her. She was looking at herself in the mirror, admiring her handiwork as she wiped her underarm clean. Her breasts were small and tanned, and she seemed not to care that she was so exposed. Then she lifted her left arm above her head. I saw the thick black hair that grew there – about a half inch long and dense. “Please,” she said, holding up the brush.
There was lather already on the bristles, so I painted the dark hair white and reached for the razor. I had never used a straight razor before, and I was afraid that I would cut her. But I gingerly placed it against her underarm and began a light scraping. The blade was so sharp that even my half-hearted effort shaved away most of the hair.
“Harder, please. I would like a close shave.”
So I pressed the blade a little more firmly against her soft skin. A few inexpert scrapes and her underarm was smooth and clean. As I shaved her, a few tendrils of her long black hair crept over my forearm, wrapping around it like a vine. I thought it was the breeze, but I couldn’t feel the air moving nor did I see anything else in the shop flutter or move. But her hair swayed and snaked about as I shaved.
I wiped away the foam residue, and she inspected my work, comparing it to the other underarm. She seemed satisfied and put her dress back up over her shoulders.
I was about to ask for a freshening up of my crewcut, but instead the girl slipped into the chair before I could say anything.
“Cape,” she said. I picked up the cape and tied it around her, reaching under the thick curtain of black hair to fasten it at her neck.
“This is what you need, yes?” she asked. “You put off the old from yourself. Now you must find something new. Look here.”
As she said that, she lifted up her heavy hair in both hands. The hair seemed to move through her fingers with a life of its own. Her neck was long and graceful.
“Use that,” she said, pointing to the big clippers. There was already a guard on the machine, but I couldn’t tell which. I turned the clippers on, and the vibration rattled up my arm to the elbow.
My heart was pounding, and my knees were shaky. But I really wanted to cut her hair. I had never wanted anything so much. I knew that I had always liked short hair on women, but my wife had always kept her hair so long that I had forgotten how much I liked short hair. Funny, the things you forget about yourself.
I gently put the clippers to the side of the girl’s head and pushed into the thick blackness. Two feet of hair peeled off to the floor, leaving a path of neat dark fur behind. Another pass and more hair fell heavily to the floor and more of the girl’s small fine head was shorn close to the scalp. Then I let the blades glide over the top of her head, and she was half shorn. She watched in the mirror, smiling a half smile, as the humming clippers reduced her mass of hair to a short orderly crewcut. Then I passed the buzzer under the hair in back, revealing her long neck and the dark V-pattern of her hairline and the delicate but thick hair that trailed down her neck. I kept moving the clippers up and over and over her head until they stopped making their chewing sound. I stepped back and turned the clippers off. Her head was small and well-formed. The crewcut was just a uniform length without a professional touch, but her hair was so thick it didn’t matter. Small hairs clung to her forehead, and I whisked them carefully away.
The girl stood up and walked toward me. Then she took my hands in hers and ran them over her close-cropped head. Over and around and against the grain. Her hair was shorter than mine, but it was softer not stiffer despite the shortness. It felt like the finest fur. It was magic. Then she kissed my hands and picked up her hair from the floor. She seemed to be talking to it as she collected the long tresses. Then she quickly tied it all together with a red ribbon and handed it to me.
“Take this and go now. Perhaps I will see you again.” She smiled a funny smile.
“I leave tomorrow, so if I could…” She didn’t let me finish. She put her finger to my lips, rubbed my crewcut slowly from the nape to the top of my head and gently directed me out of the shop.
I knew I was leaving early the next morning. I wouldn’t see her again. But I went back to the inn anyway, carrying away her hair in my pocket.
The next day we left, and a few days later I was home. At least I was back at my apartment. It didn’t feel like home. I kept thinking about the island and the shaded alley where her shop was. But for a few weeks, I tried to forget. I put the cut-off mass of black hair in the drawer of my nightstand and went back to the old drudgery of life. But in trying to forget the island, I forgot about my wife. I forgot to mourn and feel sick and lonely. The pain that I used to wake up with every day had dropped off me.
I tried to find a barber to keep my crewcut fresh, but no one could do it anything like the girl. I started to hate the feel of it. I let my hair grow out.
One night I had a dream. I saw the barber girl standing on a white beach. There was a ship run aground on the shore, and she was waving to someone on the deck. Her hair was long again in my dream and was blowing violently around in the sea breeze, as though beckoning the sailor or whoever it was to come down off the ship. There seemed to be a figure up on the ship, but it was hard to see more than an outline against the sun-bright sky. The skirt of her white dress snapped in the wind and pulled against her legs. As she waved, I saw her caress her underarm, rubbing a short growth of black hair there and seeming to plead. She kept waving to the sailor to come down to her.
When I woke up, the mass of cut-off hair that I had kept by my bedside was wrapped around my wrists, and my arms were over my head. I didn’t know how that could have happened. And all through that day, I would find strands of that long black hair where I knew it couldn’t have been – in my desk at work and in the glove compartment of my car and on my kitchen table. I thought I heard the tress writhing in the drawer as I tried to go to sleep that night, struggling to get out.
Early the next night, I couldn’t stand it any longer. I kept thinking I heard that low scuffling noise from my bedroom as the hair came to life. I pictured it snaking out under the door towards me. I wanted it to. But I knew it was a crazy idea. There’s no magic to hair. So I got up and went out for a walk. As I walked, I passed a barber shop that was closed for the night. The lights weren’t on, but I thought I saw a girl in a white coat pushing a broom, sweeping up a small mountain of hair. At least I thought she had a broom. I was sure I could see the hair moving along the floor in front of her as she moved her hands. Then she stepped back into the shadows and I couldn’t see anything.
I passed a travel agency. In the window was a small poster that said “Follow the Path of Ulysses. Visit Greece.”
I ran my hand through my hair, missing my crewcut. The agency was still open. I booked the next flight to Pilessanos. I didn’t think I’d be coming back for a long, long time.