The Red Hair
Dara Yen Elerath
Reading Time: 2 minutes
"The Red Hair" grabbed my attention with its dream-like, sinuous language. The evocative details of this flash fairy tale had me spellbound. It's the most magical piece I've read in a long time.
This piece is one of TLR's two fiction Pushcart Prize nominees for for 2020.
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My friend Hannah liked to brush her hair. It was long, red, and slightly dry from when she’d iron it. Each day I’d watch her drag a sandalwood pick through it as though it were a horse’s mane. When she’d leave my house I’d find tendrils of it everywhere: in my bed, beneath the sink, or twisted through the leaves of the old jade plant. Hannah, I would say, you ought not to brush it so much, but she was taken with a need to smooth it. At night I would dream of her hair. Once, I dreamed it was a fire she was trying to light, the sandalwood pick a match she was rubbing against a strip of phosphorus and ground glass on the side of a matchbox. Through this dream I began to understand her, to know her hair as a door she longed to open. She used so many creams and lotions, she obsessed over its texture. If only I had hair bright and shiny as a ladybug’s shell, she would exclaim as we sat gazing through the frost-lacquered window of a January afternoon. Hannah’s hair took on, for both of us, a kind of mystical significance; we spoke of it as though it were a tiger. How is it today? I’d ask, and she’d pet it slightly saying, A little wild, I need to tame it. Then she’d take out the pick and I’d comb it for her—hair like a heavy, velvet curtain or an ocean filled with red algae. Stroking it was hypnotic and we’d fall asleep. When we woke red strands would be woven through our fingers like tiny ropes. At times, it seemed the hair wanted to consume us. Some days I’d choke while eating dinner and pull from my mouth a single strand of coiled copper hair. I began to fear Hannah. At the same time the color red haunted me: stop signs, apples, roses, brick buildings, raw meat, old tubes of my mother’s poppy lipstick. One time, I skinned my knee and blood that poured forth was like Hannah’s hair—long strands of red I tried to gather in my hands like yarn. I rubbed the strands against my cheeks for luck, but when my mother saw me she only screamed, she said I was sick and scrubbed my face with scalding water. Daughter, daughter, moon and psalter, I used to chant each month when my period began; this was to summon Hannah. But my mother claimed I never had such a friend. She held my hand over the stove to try and rouse me. Wake up, she shouted, shaking me. When she did this I saw streaks of red behind my eyes. Copper coiling into gold coiling into copper.
Reprinted with permission of the author
Dara had this to say about "The Red Hair"
I have an affinity for unreliable or problematic characters; I also love stories that revolve around a single, main image. My attraction to these things relates to a theme I often return to, which is that of obsession. I chose hair as the guiding image for this story because it is charged with certain poetic connotations. My plan was to follow the thoughts of a woman with a particular mania. The red color of the hair eventually emerged as a symbol of something dangerous within her.
Dara Yen Elerath’s debut poetry collection, Dark Braid, won the John Ciardi Prize for Poetry and is forthcoming in 2020.