It wasn’t like her to have a wild hair day. It simply wasn’t.
Rahel had been a compliant child and was a well behaved adult. And if sometimes she was a little impatient with herself, if she felt lonely or locked into a life that was predictable and ordered and dutiful, at least she was safe.
Being safe had been her goal since she was very young, and since mom had told her what happened. And what her father had been.
So the last thing she expected herself to do was dye her hair a strange and artificial gold. And she’d never be able to explain it. It was, she supposed, a combination of things. For one, two days before, she’d found a white hair amid her mousy brown mane. Not that it mattered. Why should it matter? She supposed at 28 she was not so young. Women in the middle ages would be dead by her time of life, right?
But the white hair had bothered her. Like it was unfair. White hairs should come when one had lived a long life and done a lot of things, not when all one had done was study and work, live at home, and then in a very clean apartment in the big city.
So she’d put her hair up, as she always did, and pinned it, but it seemed to her like it screamed for attention from the mirror.
It didn’t, of course, and even if her hair went white overnight, like Marie Antoinette’s was said to have, it didn’t matter, because she worked from home. She’d moved to the city mostly …. well, mostly because it was easier to be alone and to keep to herself in the city than to be alone and keep to herself in the small town she’d grown up in.
If what mom had said was right, sooner or later, people back at home would notice. They had already noticed that she had stopped dating in 10th grade, and distanced herself from all her friends.
No one noticed in the city. The neighbors probably wouldn’t even notice if she dropped dead. Part of the reason she didn’t even have a cat — besides the fact she was afraid she’d go weird and turn the cat into a frog or something — was that she didn’t want her cat to eat her, which seemed to be the inevitable conclusion of someone who lived alone dying. As was, she wasn’t absolutely sure that fate or luck or something wouldn’t conjure up a cat out of nowhere to eat her, should she die in her 22nd floor apartment.
And perhaps that too was part of the reasons she’d bought the hair dye. After a long day of scientific translation — it paid well, and it was easy, but it didn’t do much for those parts of her mind that weren’t fully rational and logic — and catching glimpses of that bright white hair in her reflection on the window, she’d gone to the grocery store for food. Because, of course, she’d run out of food that day. The heat-and-eat dinners that she bought by the month-supply and of which she was supposed to have ten left had mysteriously vanished, leaving her freezer empty.
She glared at the empty freezer for a while, then put on jeans and a sweatshirt and ran to the grocery store two blocks away. Really ran, because the weather had turned unexpectedly cold . Well, maybe not unexpectedly, since it was Denver and it was October. But it had been in the seventies last time she’d been out of the house, and now it was …. felt like twenties.
She ran all the way, thinking she’d come out and buy a proper amount later. She’d just grab frozen pizza or something.
And on the way to the frozen pizza — rushing across the store amid couples shopping with their kids, and singles who seemed to be giving the eye to each other more than the food, she found herself, inexplicably, in the hair dye isle, and staring at a box that promised “Metallic golden sheen.”
How the box happened to be in the bag with the frozen pizza by the time she got home, she’d never be fully able to explain. But while the pizza was baking, she thought, well, if she was going to have white hairs soon, shouldn’t she have really extraordinary golden hair? Just once in her life?
And after eating half the pizza — it wasn’t very big — she found herself in her tiny bathroom, fooling around with malodorous chemicals, and an hour and a half later her hair was gold. No, really gold, like it had been spun from pyrite, which always seemed more gold than real gold.
She stared at herself, in the mirror, mouth half-open. It wasn’t that it was ugly, precisely. What it was, wasn’t natural. And it certainly wasn’t …. right. Not for Rahel. She’d always been the sort of girl who tied her hair back, who didn’t wear makeup, who didn’t call attention to herself.
Because after all, anyone who got close, other than mom, might notice she wasn’t quite human.
Now she had a golden mane, sparkling and catching the light, and it made her small, pale face look smaller and paler.
She glared at herself in the mirror, and tied her hair back, as she always did, and went to bed.
There was a storm, during the night. Nothing surprising there, of course. It was Colorado, and it was fall. But as she woke up in the morning, she could swear she heard, amid the howling of the wind, and the tap-tap of the snow and hail against her window, a voice crying out, very faintly “Rahel, Rahel, throw down your golden hair.”
This both made her giggle, and annoyed her. She didn’t like fairy tales, anyway. And of all the fairy tales she despised Rapunzel the most. Partly because it was so insanely non-sensical. What kind of person would let anyone — let alone a full grown man — climb up an endless tower on their hair? It would hurt.
She ate a cold slice of pizza for breakfast, and washed it down with tea. With the cold outside, she didn’t even bother dressing. She wasn’t going anywhere today. Instead, she put a robe on over her fluffy slippers and sat down to finish the research on a new kind of ceramic that she was translating from German to English.
As the night started falling, she heard it again — even though the wind had gone quiet — “Rahel, Rahel, throw down your golden hair.”
She went to the window, then, and looked down her building. Which wasn’t exactly easy to do. It had to be done sideways and at an angle, since of course, she couldn’t look straight down.
The snow was still falling, and with the street lights sparkling on it, it was hard to actually see anything very clearly, but she was sure — she would always be sure — that there was a man, climbing up the glass wall, looking much like a cartoon spiderman. Except that he wasn’t wearing the suit and that — she swore — he waved up at her. Even though he must be 10 floors down.
She frowned at him, and closed the curtains. She had the rest of the pizza for dinner, and then went to bed.
The morning was calmer, still cold looking, and she woke up to a voice, now more distinct “Rahel, Rahel, throw down your golden hair.”
Well, okay, it was probably hallucinations, because she hadn’t eaten in much too long. Or she hadn’t eaten anything but pizza. Not that this was unusual. But obviously as you got old enough to have white hairs, you couldn’t skip meals.
She showered and dressed, and put her hair up, but it didn’t look right. That mass of golden hair, and her small, pale face.
She looked through the drawers thinking she might have some blush from when she’d come to town for the interview. She didn’t really like makeup, and she didn’t think she looked particularly good in it — it tended to look ridiculous and artificial — so she was surprised to find she had not a little box of blush, but a full make up kit. Thinking about it, she could dimly remember having bought it because she was in a hurry and it was the only thing available at the store where she’d stopped.
Tentatively she applied blush, and was surprised because it looked natural. Really natural. Just better, so that … well, it went with the hair. Next thing she knew, she’d applied eyeshadow and mascara and some lipstick, though really, it was more like lip gloss.
She glared at herself in the mirror, because it didn’t look like her. It didn’t look bad, though. Just like a complete stranger.
She grabbed her winter coat from the closet, but didn’t pull up the hood, and as she walked to the grocery store, she saw that the diner she usually passed at a run was only half full — not full to the door as it usually was — and thought: why not?
Part of it might have been the smell of breakfast and the fact that she was really, really hungry.
Sitting at the table, in the corner, she ordered breakfast, and wished she’d brought a book. That’s what she usually did on the rare occasions she ate out. She brought a book, and read it, and that kept people from approaching her.
But she’d forgotten to bring a book, which is why she looked around and realized there was someone staring at her. He was tall and dark, and blunt featured. And he was holding a book in his hand, but he was staring at her like he’d never seen a woman before.
She knew she’d put the makeup on all wrong or something. She probably looked ridiculous.
Just then her eggs and pancakes arrived, and she ate in a hurry, then got to the supermarket and bought — rather blindly — some fruit and bread, and a dozen eggs and some milk.
By the time she got to the apartment, her phone started ringing in her pocket.
I was mom and Rahel talked to her, while putting things away. “No, mom,” she said, as she’d been saying every week, for a year. “I’m not seeing anyone. I promise I won’t. And no, I haven’t turned anyone into a frog by accident.”
Mom squawked on the other side that she’d said nothing about turning people into frogs, and that she never said anything about that nonsense magic, and that–
But the truth was that it was little more than what she said. All about dad’s amazing, near-supernatural attractiveness to the opposite sex, and how he couldn’t help being the way he was because he was so stunningly beautiful, and had something near irresistible, and how Rahel needed to be careful, because she’d likely inherited it.
Mom was still saying it, of course, “You know, it’s just I don’t want you to end up having relationships with people and breaking their hearts, and promising more than you can give, and–“
It was the old sermon all over again, first brought up and unrolled when she’d been dating Bobby in tenth grade.
“Oh, Bobby Smith,” mom said, suddenly out of the blue. “Remember him?” And interpreting Rahel’s mumble as assent. “His wife just had their third kid.”
Just for that, because she felt inexplicably resentful, but also because frankly she didn’t want to put up with another sermon, Rahel didn’t tell mom about the hair and makeup.
Instead she worked and had some dinner, and spent some time in front of the mirror brushing her golden hair, before going to bed. The weird thing was even after she washed her face, she still looked like the golden hair belonged. Maybe that was all the young man in the diner had been looking at.
She was reading a very boring — well recommended — book before bed when she heard it, clearer and much nearer “Rahel, Rahel, throw down your golden hair!”
She ran to the window and threw open the curtains, and he was there. And he couldn’t be there, because it made no sense. Men do not climb the glass faces of buildings to knock at the window of single ladies, just because they saw them a few tables away, in the diner.
But he was there, knocking at the window, with a big grin on his face, and she could see his lips form the words, “Rahel, Rahel, throw down your golden hair.”
She closed the curtains, ran to the bed and sat huddled, trying to figure out if she should call 911. But what would she tell them? “Some guy climbed my building and is outside the window of the twenty second floor?” They’d think she was doing drugs.
She went to the window again, and peered around the curtain. And of course, there was no one there. She must have dreamed it. But the snow had picked up again, and it howled outside.
She sighed. Well, at least she had food. But she had trouble sleeping that night. Everything kept coming back to her, and suddenly, as if she’d both always known it, and it were a nrew and startling idea, realized that she was lonely. Very lonely.
Dad had left when she was what? Four? Five? And she’d never really bonded with mom.
Mom wasn’t mean or cruel, or anything like that. Rahel figured out early on, mom was just hurt. She’d been really upset when dad had left like that. It was all part of living in a small town. Dad had blown in out of nowhere, and mom had married him, and then he’d disappeared. And everyone in town said she should have known better than marrying a stranger.
Mom said he’d left her for another woman. That he’d had affairs all the time they’d been married. And that it was because he was so fatally attractive. She said Rahel was too — though Rahel had never seen it in herself — and that she shouldn’t trifle with young men, because she couldn’t be faithful and it was better not to break anyone’s heart.
Which was why Rahel had broken up with Bobby. Good Lord, they’d never even kissed. Just held hands and talked about books.
She realized she very much wanted someone to hold hands and talk about books. Was that so terrible? Was it because she was too much like dad?
In the morning, she had time. The job she’d been doing was ahead of schedule, because she’d been working late — probably because the current book was really tiresome — and she thought she’d look up dad’s name, see if she could find pictures.
She did. Online. Not recent pictures, but some pictures of himself as a young man — though he was online even now. Or at lest she found a facebook account with the same name — and she did not look like him at all. If anything she looked like mom. Not that she looked a lot like mom.
As a young man, dad looked like…. Well, his name was Earnest Prinz. And he looked like the Disney version of a fairytale prince. Though the hair was not quite as dorky. He was blue eyed, and had golden hair, and the broad shoulders and narrow waist of a cartoon character.
Looking at the pictures, she thought she heard a knocking on her window and the distant calling “Rahel, Rahel, throw down your golden hair” but ignored it.
Instead, she friended her dad on facebook, which required of course making p an account. And sent him a message saying “I know you probably don’t even remember me–“
She got back an answer before she was done typing, “Rahel! Is it really you?”
A quick exchange of texts. He swore he didn’t know she was even alive. He’d looked for her. He’d even hired a detective. But they couldn’t find her, and mom had told him Rahel had died.
There were strange things in what he said. Almost as weird as mom’s. Like his saying that he might not have hired the best detective, “Because I’m not sure about those things in your world.” And also “It wouldn’t be weird if you’d died, because you know, our kind sometimes does, there.”
But he’d said he had the facebook account simply to talk to her, and that if she just waited, he’d come and see her.
“You live in Denver?” she asked.
“No, but I can be there in minutes.”
Because she wasn’t sure — yes, he was her father, but he was also a stranger — she arranged to meet him at the botanic gardens, despite the snow.
She didn’t even mind the snow that much, as she stood in the deserted Japanese gardens and saw him approach. There was something strange about his attire, like he was trying to look mundane, but couldn’t quite manage it. His clothes looked…. too new, his hair too perfect. Maybe that was all mom meant.
“You look like your grandmother Titania,” he said.
“My grandmother’s name was Titania. Maybe I can turn people to frogs.”
He smiled uneasily. After a while he asked what her mother had told her about him, about herself.
“But we are magical, Rahel. Your mom was afraid of it. She was afraid the magic would manifest. You see, this is not the only world. There is a place… You can call it fairyland if it makes you feel better.” The story was fantastic, unimaginable. “I should never have married your mother. But I fell in love with her. And then she …. she couldn’t accept it. And I wasn’t very good at this world. There aren’t many jobs for elf-prince. Well, maybe movies, but that’s not the point.”
Rahel would like to think he was insane. But the thing was, dad, and she was sure he was dad, wasn’t young, but he wasn’t old. There was this feeling of eternity around him.
“But I’m not like you,” Rahel said. “I’m just human. I had a white hair!”
“I think you made yourself have white hairs. No, I’m not going to argue. I know it’s hard for people like you to believe in fairyland. But you need to be who you are. You’re at odds with the world because you don’t let yourself be who you are.”
He didn’t ask to meet her again, though he said anytime. And Rahel went back home, sure it was all insane.
Later, she stood in front of the mirror and thought about letting herself be who she really was. How did one even do that? But she could feel as if there had been…. something over her thoughts, something heavy.
Perhaps dad was right. Or perhaps he was just crazy. Not that mom was particularly sane either. But perhaps it was time to be her, and not who her parents said she was.
It seemed to her, suddenly, she looked quite different.
She brushed her hair, and tied it back, and then she thought she’d send dad a picture of the hairdye box, so she could show him it was just dye. Because he kept saying her hair was just like her grandmother Titania’s.
The thing was the box had disappeared. I was completely gone. Not in the bathroom trash, and not in the kitchen trash, and she hadn’t taken it out, and she didn’t have a cleaning service.
She did some work, and went to bed. As she was falling asleep, someone knocked at the door. Which was strange, because she had a doorbell. Weirder, as she reached for the light switch, nothing happened.
She put on a robe and went to the door, and there, looking worried, was the young man from the diner. “Hi, I’m John. I live next door. Something blew in the building, and they’re trying to figure out which apartment caused it.”
She’d never have let him in, of course, but there were other men, and they had IDs from the electric company, and anyway the hallways were full of people looking around, people she remembered seeing before.
They found the short, eventually. The lights up on the roof terrace had blown. Probably too much snow, the guys said.
And John had seen her back to her apartment, and stood, and cleared his throat, “Would you– You wouldn’t–That is…. breakfast? Tomorrow?”
They’d had breakfast, and then other breakfasts. And they’d held hands and gone to the movies and talked about books.
Eventually he’d asked if it wouldn’t be a good idea if they got married, and she tried to explain what mother had told her, and what father had told her. And he hadn’t laughed. He hadn’t called a psychiatrist only. He’d held her hand and said, “To me you are magical. And that’s a good thing.”
Her hair never went back to mousy brown. In fact, she couldn’t find a picture of herself with mousy brown hair, and all the kids — three boys and two girls — had the same bright gold hair.
And she could never find her dad’s account on facebook, again. A year after being married, she got a text with his name that said, “you made your choice.”
And she had. Mother came around eventually and stopped giving Rahel that strange look, like she expected Rahel to turn people into frogs. And she never gave it to the kids.
John always said Rahel was magical, but he didn’t seem to see anything wrong with that.
Her hair did, eventually, go white. But it didn’t matter at all, when John held her in his arms and whispered in her ear, “Rahel, Rahel, let down your golden hair.”