The Simple Things

Bedtime story

- by Anne Ostby

The picture pops up in the early afternoon. The ping from her cellphone tells Sarah it’s from Millie – each of the kids has their own ringtone. She eagerly grabs the phone; it’s been days since she last heard from her youngest daughter. The challenge is not to whine, Sarah thinks. Not to be the clingy mother who can’t let go. Her youngest is at university, that’s how it’s supposed to be. Circle of life. Don’t text or call her about the hazy loss that shrouds the days since she left.

At first she doesn’t understand what she’s looking at. Two red snakes on a table. A mirror, a brush. The snakes are red ropes of thick, soft, shiny hair. Then it occurs to Sarah that they are plaits: what’s on her cellphone screen is two actual plaits of actual hair. She scrolls franticall­y, those are Millie’s plaits, they should be attached to Millie’s head!

But they’re not. Millie’s plaits lay there chopped off, with hair ties at both ends, on a console table in front of a mirror in a hair salon. Eighteen years of thick, glorious hair, the fiery mane that’s always made hands stretch out in curiosity: “Wow, look at that hair!” That’s made hairdresse­rs smile sheepishly over the years: “Just the split ends, right?” The silky red locks Sarah has run her fingers through thousands of times, tamed into tight braids and gathered in perky ponytails, adorned with glittery clips and a princess tiara.

A sharp jab in her chest. An 18-year bond spun of ginger silk, snipped off in an instant. A sharp and brutal step away from home, a wound in the road between them, hacked with a hairdresse­r’s shears.

The ballet slippers still hang on the wall of her bedroom. Oh, how Sarah can picture her: narrow shoulders beneath her leotard, blue silk ribbon around the graceful bun at the nape of her neck. Several rounds of hairspray were needed to hold it steadily in place during jetés and pirouettes.

Sarah zooms in on the picture again and again. No accompanyi­ng message, no explanatio­n. Just two lifeless, severed tails in front of a mirror.

She doesn’t send a response. Doesn’t know what to say. Should she call Tom, seek an outlet for the storm within her, the feeling of… abandonmen­t? Is that what she is? Abandoned somewhere in the past, where the magnificen­t red mane was something they had in common, something that was theirs? She has Tom’s number on the screen, but doesn’t call. “What are you talking about?” he’ll say. “My God, it’s only hair!”

The phone pings. Millie again. A message: “Hundreds of people here! Amazing crowd!” A video is slow to load. Sarah feels her anxiety growing: what’s going on? Where is she?

Twenty-two breathless seconds later, she has her answer. The camera that captures the crowd flips around and a redheaded young woman’s smile beams at her. Green jacket and bulky scarf, she holds a sign in her hand: Climate change is real! We need action NOW!

Her eyes are shining; there’s fight in them. The will and power of a flower that’s no longer a bud, but flourishin­g with its crown of outstretch­ed leaves in the afternoon sun. A reddish-gold halo, a shiny bob boldly and confidentl­y skirting a face that looks familiar, but is somehow new.

“Action now!” Millie shouts as the chorus around her rises. “We won’t wait!” The video ends and Sarah stares at the blank screen. Feels an astonished smile creep across her face. As it echoes in the room, her voice sounds not abandoned, but amazed. Proud. “My God, Sarah!” it says. “It’s only hair!”

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