This story first appeared in the out of print fanzine WITHIN THE CRYSTAL ROSE #6, 1992. No copyright infringement is intended, and the story is for the sole enjoyment of the fans.
LET DOWN YOUR HAIR
Roxanne Shearer Koogler
It was well after midnight when Mary pushed aside the knitting which she had left in her rocker and sank wearily onto the seat. Eric had had another one of the nightmares that had plagued him irregularly since his sister Ellie's death, and she had spent hours trying to calm the child, finally taking him up on her lap and rocking him until he stopped jerking awake each time his eyes closed.
Now she sat in the antique bentwood rocker, her head resting on the high seat back, bone weary. A Helper had donated ten bushels of apples, and she had been helping William and Catherine make applesauce. Lifting baskets of apples and newly-canned jars of applesauce all day had left her with sore arms and an aching back, as well as a strained shoulder, and she had been exhausted even before Lena came to tell her about Eric's nightmare. She sat still, trying not to move her arms. Holding Eric, she had not had much opportunity to move, and the muscles of her chest and shoulders had started to stiffen. Now lifting her arms any higher than her waist hurt, and she knew that to raise them above her head, as she would have to do to change into her nightgown, would be excruciating. She wasn't looking forward to the experience.
She sighed and pushed herself out of the chair, wincing as the abused muscles protested. No use putting it off, she thought, and went to the wardrobe. She opened the doors and took out a soft flannel gown that had been washed to near transparency. It wasn't really that warm any more, but it was her favorite, and there were enough quilts on the bed to make up for any lack of insulation, if she could get into bed quickly enough. Gingerly, she slid her arms out of her vest and undid the fastenings of her clothes, pulling them off several layers at a time in order not to stretch any more than she had to. The chill of the chamber--it was always cold to Mary now, even when she was fully clothed--seemed to suck all the heat from her body at once; she snatched up the nightgown and jerked it on, preferring the scant warmth of the thin flannel to the luxury of slowly easing her arms over her head. Her fingers fumbled at the tiny buttons, and by the time she had fastened them, she had begun to shiver. She picked up the crocheted wool wrapper from the foot of the bed, where it lay folded neatly, and draped it over her shoulders.
For a few moments she clutched it tight around her; when the shivering abated, she relaxed and went to sit in front of the battered walnut vanity. She picked up her silver-handled brush, part of a set that was one of the few things she had brought with her when she left the world Above. She ran her fingers over the engraved letters on the back of the brush.
Her mother had given her the set for her sixteenth birthday, and she had been so proud. Her hair had been her one vanity then, and she would sit before the mirror every night and brush it until it crackled and flew up around her head like a halo. It had fallen past her waist, and she had often worn it flowing down her back.
She sighed and looked at herself in the mirror. No one ever saw her with her hair down now. For over thirty years, ever since she came to live in the tunnels, she had gotten up every morning and coiled it into a chignon, not taking it down until she brushed it out the last thing before going to bed at nigyht.
In another life, before the bad times and the drinking and the beatings had started, there had been someone who loved to help her unpin her hair and brush it the required hundred strokes, but things had changed. Violence and madness had shattered her old life and forced her to seek shelter in the tunnels, bruised, battered, and emotionally broken by a husband no longer able to remember that he had loved her. Now, though she was surrounded by a loving and supportive and very large family, there was no one to help unpin her hair.
She gave an exasperated snort at her own foolishness and set the brush down with a sharp rap. Carefully easing her arms over her head, she began to remove the hairpins which held her bun in place. By the time she had taken out the third pin, however, her arms had grown too heavy to hold aloft any longer, and she let them fall to her sides with a soft whoof. She was just putting the hairpins on the dressing table when a tentative cough came from behind her.
She whirled, pulling the wrapper around her, to find Father standing in the doorway.
"Mary?" he said.
For a moment surprise froze her tongue, and he stood, waiting for her acknowledgement. At last her wits returned to her, and she spoke.
"Father. Come in. Is anything wrong?"
"No, my dear," he said as he stepped into the room. "I just wanted to see if Eric was all right."
"He's fine." Mary's fingers clutched in the wool of the wrapper, pulling it tighter across her chest. "He's sleeping now."
"Good." He said nothing more, and a silence grew. Mary picked up the hairpins and began to fiddle with them. Father noticed.
"I'm sorry, I'm disturbing you. Forgive me." He turned to go, giving a slight bow. "Good night."
"Good night." When he was through the chamber door she reached up quickly to take out the other pins, and gave a low cry at the sharp twinge that shot through her chest and back.
Immediately, Father was back in the room. "Mary?" he said, concerned, "What's wrong? Are you all right?"
"Yes, yes, I'm fine," Mary stammered. She waved her hand dismissively. "It's nothing, just sore muscles. We were putting up applesauce today and I strained my shoulder."
Father smiled. "Ah. What you need is a long, hot soak."
One corner of Mary's mouth lifted ruefully. "That's where I was headed when Lena came to tell me about Eric. And it's so late now..."
"Well, rest should do almost as much good. What was it that made you cry out?"
"Oh! It was my...my hair! That is, I..." Mary's eyes flew about the room, and she began to stammer. "I... I...was trying to...to...take my hair...down." She felt the blood rush to her face and turned away, unwilling for him to see how flustered she was.
"Would you like me to help you with it so you can rest your arms?"
Her heart lurched against her ribs, and she spun to face him. "No!" she said, regretting the sharpness of her tone as soon as the words came out. "It's just a little stiffness, for heaven's sake; you expect that at my age. I don't need to be coddled!" It troubled her to refuse an offer of help, but the thought of his hands on her hair pierced her with such a terrifying longing that she clasped her fingers together until her knuckles were white, to keep them from trembling.
Father stepped back. "I assure you, I had no intention of coddling you," he said, with only the slightest trace of hurt. "I was merely offering my help."
"I'm sorry, Father." Mary rubbed her eyes and flashed him a small, apologetic smile in the mirror, then turned away again. "I'm just a little tired. Please forgive me."
His hand on her shoulder startled her, made her tense. She hadn't heard him step closer.
"There is nothing to forgive." He gave her shoulder a gentle squeeze.
"Thank you, Father, I...oh!" She gave a small gasp of dismay when she felt the pin slide from her hair and then his fingers, searching for the next one. She could not move, and so stood, frozen between a caught breath and its release as he removed the last two pins. Even when her hair, pulled by its own weight, tumbled down over his hands, she could not move, did not dare to breathe.
He had only meant to offer a kindness, a small repayment of the thousand thoughtful things she did for him every day, but when the heavy mass of her hair poured over his hands and he felt the silky warmth of it, his intentions were scattered like chaff, leaving him with a small kernel of knowledge that something, somehow, was different. He could not tell what the change was; it seemed too big and bright to grasp at first. Slowly, reluctantly, he drew his hands away, spreading her hair in a fan across her shoulders.
He looked up to find her watching him in the mirror. Her eyes were wide, almost frightened, and she held herself as though poised for flight, but there was something else in her eyes, something that made his heart pound and snatched at his breath. "Mary," he said, and then stopped, not knowing what to say next.
"Yes?" Her voice was small and uncertain, still afraid. He could not bear the thought that he frightened her, and reached out to comfort her, but instead found himself lifting a strand of hair which had fallen across her cheek. He let it slide through his fingers.
"You have beautiful hair." It wasn't what he'd meant to say, but that didn't seem important now. What was important was to take the haunted look from Mary's eyes. He put his hands gently on her shoulders and turned her around to face him. "Mary," he said, cupping her face with one hand, "what is it?"
Her eyes closed and she made a small noise in her throat. For a moment he thought she leaned into his hand, but then she swayed and began to tremble. When she opened her eyes, they were more haunted than before. "Please," she said, her voice strained, "Father, don't..."
Suddenly it seemed intolerable for her to call him by that name. "No," he said harshly, "I'm Jacob."
He didn't let her finish the word, stilling her with a finger over her lips. For a fleeting instant, he wondered why he had never noticed how beautiful her mouth was. "Jacob," he repeated, looking deeply into her eyes, willing her to say it; his thumb skimmed over her cheekbone as he slid his fingers into her hair.
She stared back as though mesmerized. "Jacob," she whispered, and something inside him exulted. But her next words brought him crashing back to reality.
"Why are you doing this? Please, I..."
His hand fell away and she staggered; he stepped back, stricken. "I'm sorry, Mary, I... That was inexcusable. I never meant to frighten you, I..." Deeply distressed and ashamed, he turned to leave the chamber.
Her words stopped him, but he did not turn around. "Please," he said dully, "I should go. I'm sorry, I...forgot how you came here. Naturally, it must disgust you to have a man touch you that way..." And then, stumbling to a fumble-tongued halt, he realized what had changed. She was no longer simply patient, self-effacing, quiet Mary who never intruded on his thoughts, whose scent had never disturbed his concentration, whose desires were locked away as tightly as her hair. Now, in the space of a breath, she was changed--or he was. Or perhaps they both were. And it might be too late to repair the damage he had done by frightening her that way.
Cursing himself for six kinds of fool, he stepped forward again and was surprised to feel her hand on his arm.
"It wasn't like that." Her voice was soft, and it pulled at him. He turned slowly.
"Mary, I saw the look in your eyes when I touched you. You were afraid."
"But not of you!"
"Of what, then?"
"Nothing, it was nothing." Her fingers plucked at the stitches of the shawl and she would not meet his eyes.
He tipped her chin up. "Please, tell me."
She gave a minute shake of her head. "I can't."
"You love Jessica."
The apparent non sequitur threw him off balance for a moment, and he frowned, trying to make sense of it. "Yes, of course," he said at last. "She's my granddaughter."
"No," Mary said, averting her eyes. "I don't mean that Jessica."
"Then who...?" He cast about in his mind for another Jessica. Finally he realized whom she meant. "Ah!" He looked down at Mary, whose face was set in lines of misery. "I did love her, yes."
Mary's eyes flew to his. "Did?"
He nodded. "It's been over for a long time. But what does she have to do with why you were frightened?"
She made no reply, only turned her head away.
"Mary?" He lifted her chin again, but she still would not look at him. "Please..."
Then she raised her eyes, and he was unable to move.
For a timeless moment they gazed at each other, the something he had seen before in her eyes blazing white hot between them, searing away his breath, and he knew it for what it was. Involuntarily, his fingers spread, curling around the column of her neck to slide beneath the hair at her nape. He felt the sudden flutter of the pulse in her throat, and his fingers tightened at the back of her head, pulling her a fraction closer. The blood was roaring in his ears, and he wondered if she were afraid, if he should release her, but the frantic pulsebeat he felt under his palm held him like a magnet held steel. "Mary," he whispered, a ragged sound in the still room.
Her hands came up to rest on his chest. Her eyes held a look of amazed joy. "Jacob," she said, barely breathing the word, and stretched a trembling hand to touch his cheek, his hair, his lips.
He caught her fingers when she would have taken them away, and held them next to his heart. Slowly, drawn forward almost by her very breath, he leaned toward her, pulling her closer at the same time, and pressed the gentlest of kisses to her lips. She drew in a soft "ah!" of breath, and, as though she had asked it, his mouth sought hers again.
But when he took her in his arms, he found that she was trembling.
Stepping back, he reached for her hands. They were like ice, and for the first time he noticed that she was not dressed for warmth.
"Good heavens, Mary, you're freezing!" He dropped her hands and looked around the room, searching for something to keep her warm, finally snatching up a quilt from the bed. He flung it around her shoulders and she clutched it to her, wrapping it like a cloak. But she looked a bit forlorn.
"Here," he said, putting his arm around her back and pushing her toward the bed, "You must get warm. Why didn't you tell me you were so cold?" He bundled her into the bed, quilt and all, and pulled the remaining covers up over her. She gave him a self-deprecating smile. "I didn't even notice," she said. She struggled to sit up, and he sat next to her on the edge of the bed.
"Mary," he said solemnly, taking one of her hands in his and chafing it, "why didn't you ever tell me...how you felt...before?"
"I couldn't." She tried to take her hand back, but he would not let it go. "It wouldn't have been right."
"But all the time that we've wasted..."
She squeezed his fingers. "You weren't ready to know, were you?"
His hands stilled as he thought about it. "I suppose not," he sighed.
She gave a small nod. "Exactly. And it isn't as though we haven't had time together..."
Father snorted. "No. That's one thing we've had in abundance, is time together. But it isn't the same as being together, knowing."
For a second there was a sad look in her eyes, and he caressed her cheek. "So did I," he said softly, "I just didn't realize it." He grinned and took her hand again. "Now, you'd best wrap up and get warm. You know how bad the cold can be at our age." He was relieved to hear her laugh at that. He stood, still holding her hand. Giving her his most devilish smile, he said, "You know, it would be helpful if you had something warm in the bed with you, something large..."
Mary's eyebrows arched primly. "But not at all proper, if you please." The twinkle in her eyes matched his.
He gave a theatrical sigh. "I suppose not. Goodnight, my dear. Sleep well, and stay warm." He lifted her hand, turned it over and left a lingering kiss in her palm. Then he left the chamber, hardly hobbling at all, humming a snatch of a George M. Cohan tune.
Mary sat for long minutes, holding the kiss to her cheek. It was all so hard to believe, and already it seemed like a dream she might wake from. For a second fear clutched at her; then she pulled the quilt tighter around her and laughed. "No," she said, "I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast, I can believe in this, too!
She laughed again and settled herself under the covers. Perhaps tomorrow she would ask him to help her brush out her hair...