Friday, July 30, 2010

WeekWord: Braid

Hennie Mavis on her Runs Rampant Blog has a WeekWord "Braid."
  Here is my contribution.

The drawing above I did on my iPad to go with story below.  I spent most of my time working on the story.  If you click the image, you can view it larger.

What follows is a brand new chapter from novel in progress, Disappearing.  I'd been thinking of giving the protagonist braids and the prompt of the week convinced me.


Terry leaned over, blew out a moist breath, rubbed the dusty mirror with a piece of toilet paper and looked at herself. The light coming through broken window of abandoned house number six was greenish from the leaves that hung over the window like a curtain. Green, brown and gold, for dead and dying leaves dangled among the live ones. She wished she had a camera and could capture the face she saw. She wished she could paint herself in soft water colors or even bright pastels. She could see the possibilities developing in her mind, but of course, she had no camera, paint or pastels. She had nothing.

She liked this strange green-gold reflection. It looked more relaxed and girlish than her reflections had for several years. She looked happier, more like herself. How could that be, when she had no money and didn't know where her next meal would come from? Why did she feel safer here, in this abandoned house, in this apparently alarmingly unsafe neighborhood, than she had at home?

Terry leaned over and peered at the top of her head. Dark auburn roots showed at her part, a good lot of them. The frosted strawberry blond done by Eileen at Mr. Curl was growing out. She held up her head and looked at the hair that fell just below her shoulders. When had she last been to Mr. Curl for a trim and a do? It had been a long while. She hadn't even brushed her hair for days. She opened the medicine cabinet. There was a ratty old hairbrush, a comb, a bottle of aspirins with maybe seven aspirin in it, along with a little pile of aspirin dust, and some hair bands.

On the side of the tub was a nearly empty bottle of shampoo. She reached through the tattered shower curtain with its dried mildew and rust stains and turned on the water. It sputtered, stopped, started, shot out gobs of lumpy brown goo and rusty water, and then ran clear. It was cold, of course, with no gas or electricity to heat it. She didn't understand why the water was still on, but wasn't going to worry about it, as long as it worked. She jumped in, lathered her hair and her armpits (they were hairy, too) and using the shampoo as soap, quickly washed herself, watching sheets of dirt-laden water slough off her body and stream toward the drain.

The water got colder and colder. She moved faster and faster, lathering, rinsing and then leaping out. Water dripped onto the linoleum floor in puddles. She shut off the water. Then opened the cupboard. She hadn't thought to look for a towel. Crumpled in a corner was a small hand towel covered with mouse droppings. The towel was frayed with age; a mouse had chewed one edge to threads to make nest at some point in the past. Using the cleanest- looking portion of the towel, she wiped herself off. She was still damp, but felt great. Miraculously clean. Her blood was chugging through veins and she felt astonishingly alive. She looked in the mirror. Her cheeks were rosy red, even in the green-gold light, and amazingly, she looked kind of pretty. Thinner, younger.

As she put her clothes back on, she realized she would need to wash them as well. Then it occurred to her she had been standing naked in an abandoned house where anyone could have walked in on her, and had not been afraid. And still wasn't, unless she really thought about it. And why bother worrying? There was nothing immediate she could do to fix her situation. After removing old hairs and dust from the brush and rinsing it under a hard gush from the tub spigot, she brushed her hair and then decided to braid it. She wondered if she'd remember how. As a kid, she had worn her hair in braids. For years, her mother had done it for her.

Then, one day, Simon's friend Sienna Weaver's mother, Annie, who was an artist, asked Terry to sit for her. Terry had arrived for the sitting with her hair down, because she thought it was prettier that way and that Mrs. Weaver would want her to look pretty. Mrs. Weaver asked her to braid it. When Terry told her she didn't know how. Mrs. Weaver acted as if she were a cretin.

"How old are you?" she'd asked.

"Thirteen," Terry had answered. Mrs. Weaver had to know that, since Sienna, her daughter, was a year younger and a grade behind her.

"And you can't braid your own hair?  You let your mother do it for you? Every day?" Terry felt a rush of shame and anger wash over her.

Mrs. Weaver braided Terry's hair in soft loose braids for her portrait, different than the tight way her mother did it. But though her mother always held the hair tightly, she did it with love and kindness. Mrs. Weaver moved more softly, but was not as gentle as her mother. Terry wanted to squirm away and run from the little play yard with its white picket fence where Mrs. Weaver had asked her to sit for her portrait. But Terry had promised she would sit, so she sat. The braids looked nice for the portrait, but fell out as soon as Terry began to run around afterwards.

Mrs. Weaver had entered the portrait in an art show where it won a green honorable mention ribbon. Then, she had given the portrait to Terry. It both looked and did not look like Terry. The eyes were
wrong—they looked more like Sienna's eyes, like Annie Weaver's eyes, than hers. They were slanted and almond shaped rather than oval and level like Terry's eyes. Terry could never decide if she liked the
portrait, with its strange mix of bad and good memories. The portrait was probably, still at her parents' house. She was sure that her parents would not have thrown it out. She was not sure if she wanted it or not, if she survived her current problems.

The evening of the afternoon sitting with Mrs. Weaver, Terry asked her mother to teach her to braid. Her mother tacked three thick ropes to her bulletin board and showed her how to cross the upper outer rope into the center, and then the one on the other side. Terry practiced.  Then, she practiced on her hair. The braids she wove were not as nice as the ones her mother made; like Mrs. Weaver's they came loose and fell out.

"It works better if the hair is wet," her mother advised, so Terry tried that.

She tried for days and then for weeks. Meanwhile, she avoided Sienna and her mother because she didn't want either of them to ask if she braid her own hair yet. Sienna was kind of stuck up anyway. She was beautiful, like a movie star, with long curly blond hair, dark eyebrows and eyelashes and stunning blue eyes. Terry, with her straight dark auburn hair and violet blue eyes was pretty enough normally, but when she stood beside Sienna, she looked like Quasimodo.  Or perhaps she just felt like Quasimodo.

Every morning, Terry combed and braided her own hair, looked in the mirror, rejected the imperfect braids, and asked her mother to do it. She watched how her mother pulled the handfuls of hair tight, how she held the slippery shining stands, how she looped them over each other, pulling them tight again and again, how she dampened the hair and her hands.

Her Mom had to dampen the hair because, at that time, Terry didn't shampoo her own hair and her mother didn't do it for her. It had gotten so long that she could easily sit on it and was thicker than anyone else Terry ad ever met. Her mother had made arrangements to have it washed. Once a week, Terry went to Mr. Kilgore's beauty salon to have him shampoo her hair. He was Rod Kilgore's father. They lived on her street and Rod was friends with her brother, Simon. The abundance of Terry's hair was hard to handle. Mr. Kilgore was as gentle, kind and sweet as her mother. She wasn't sure why her mother permitted this weekly apparent extravagance when she was tight about finances in so many other ways. Maybe she wanted to help Mr. Kilgore by supporting his business. Maybe it was a small way of saying she loved Terry.

Later, Terry learned to braid her hair while it was still wet from
showering, which helped it braid tighter and stay braided longer. But
back then, they had to manually wet the hair. Every day, she watched
her mother and paid attention to the tension of the hair. The next
day, she would try again, fail, and ask for help. Her mother, who was
often cranky and irritable, was a paragon of patience during the braid
learning difficulties.

It took months, but she finally got it. Her braids were never quite
as neat and perfect as her mother's, but at last she could do it
herself. She was almost 14 when she finally did her own braids every
day before school.

Three months later, at the end of June, she cut her hair. That fall,
she would enter 9th grade, which, at that time at her school, was the
beginning of high school. Even in eighth grade, no one else wore
braids. Terry was an anomaly. People laughed at her. Gary Sommers
called her "Horsehair," which wouldn't have been so bad, except for
the mean way he said it, and the fact that the other boys had picked
up on it, too.

Mr. Kilgore cut off her braids. He was sad. She never went back to
him for shampoos, because now she could wash her hair herself in the
shower.  With her pixie cut, she went to him every two or three months
to have it re-cut and styled.

Terry realized something she had never understood back then.
Probably the reason it had taken her so long to learn to braid her
hair was because of her dyslexia. She always had particular problems
with things that involved right and left. She was so used to living
inside her own skin that she thought she was normal. But there were
times when her dyslexia puzzled her and made her embarrassed and
ashamed, particularly when she didn't understand the problem. Or,
perhaps it wasn't her fault. Perhaps Mrs. Weaver was at fault for her
lack of understanding. It was possible that she didn't know Terry was
dyslexic. But she didn't have to be quite so mean about it. After
all, Terry wasn't stupid. She was a lot smarter than Sienna, at
least in school.

Terry grasped her hair, used the rattail on the brush to make a part
in the back, and braided each side. Her fingers moved automatically,
without thinking, even though it had been years since she'd braided
it. She did remember. After she put the pony bands from the medicine
cabinet on the braids, winding them round and round, she studied
herself in the mirror. She smiled, a big happy smile. She remembered
that girl in the mirror and liked her. She liked her better than the
girl she had become these last few years.

Of course, she wasn't really a girl any more, not in the sense where
girl implied child, not legally or biologically. But right then, she
felt like a girl, and liked the feeling.

Her new braids were only a few inches long. The ends swept the top
of her shoulders. They were thinner than the substantial braids she
had as a kid. She remembered now, Mrs. Weaver, just before she had
braided her hair for the portrait, running her hands through Terry's
hair, admiring how thick it was, smiling at Terry, her criticisms
forgotten in the glory of the luxuriant hair. Well, her hair wasn't as
thick as it had been, but it was still nice. And it was hers. Her
hair, her braids. Her life.


henniemavis said...

Wow, now that's a creative exploration of the word braid! Did you say that this is part of a novel you are working on?

It's interesting to me, since I have never had 2 braids on my head the way you describe.

merrytait said...

Yep--Definitely part of my new novel. Last time I looked, I was up to 77 pages, but I forgot to look last night. And I worked hard on it yesterday. So I'm sure I've made more progress.


Ecobatt said...

How fun! I'm still pretty new to the weekword thing myself, but I'm totally in love with your writing. Lots of luck with your novel :)

Mary Stebbins Taitt said...

This was my first post for WeekWord! :-D

Thanks so much. The novel is coming along.

I have one out to an agent and am supposed to hear back this month, keep your fingers crossed for me.