by Mae Empson
Sara knew she was in trouble when her mother told her they were going to see Old Nan. The old witch lived in the forest on the foothills of Crowmount above the coal mine where the men of the town worked. No one went to Old Nan for anything but to ask for a curse or to see a wrong righted.
Sara knew she’d done wrong. She wished she could tell her mother that the whole thing had been a mad impulse, a sleepwalking half-dream. It hadn’t. The truth was that she had been nursing the thought of ruining her sister’s hair since the day handsome Jack brought Jane flowers. Jane’s hair shone golden like sun on a corn husk reflected in the water. Each morning, as Jane happily brushed her long, lustrous, and radiant hair, Sara combed through hair that was a muddy brown to black, brittle and thin, and impossible to grow past her shoulders.
Last night, she’d had enough. She’d waited until her sister was sleeping deeply and then she’d cut it. Big handfuls of severed golden hair. Foot lengths. And meanest of all, rather than bury it, she’d intentionally spread the golden harvest out on their yard during the night for birds to carry off.
Their ma made them bury even the fine tangled slivers that caught up in their combs just to be safe, as her own mother had taught her. Everyone knew if you lost track of a single hair, and a bird threaded it into its nest, you’d have awful headaches until the bird made a new nest.
It had been a nasty thing to do. Sara regretted it as soon as she woke up, and ran out to the yard to recapture the golden strands, but they were all gone.
Old Nan sat in a rocking chair by the hearth, in a faded patchwork dress. Sara had heard she was ugly, and she was. Old Nan was bent and dried out looking, with a crooked nose, matted black hair, and long dirty fingernails.
“So, this is Sara, is it?” Nan rasped, and beckoned her closer. “You want good hair, I hear. It’s more important to you than blood ties or kindness, yes?”
Nan spit in one hand, and reached into an apron pocket with another and pulled out a fine powder that she mixed into the spit. She smeared the mix across both hands and then rubbed it into Sara’s hair, pulling hard when Sara flinched.
Nan looked up and dismissed Sara’s mother. “Best you leave this next part to us.”
After the door closed, she looked back at Sara. “Good folk like your ma and your sister and that Jack you like so well attract their own good fortune. But, the world has meanness in it, and sometimes, the village needs meanness to fight back, so they put up with ugly creatures like me, and I daresay you. We shall see what comes of you. But, for now, I’m inclined to simply give you what you want and see what falls of it.”
“Really?” Sara asked, and thanked her, legs practically buckling with relief.
Nan stabbed a knife through her own palm without wincing and then rubbed her blood into Sara’s hair, over top of the spit. “May you have hair that is longer, stronger, shinier, healthier, and faster growing than your sister’s. This say I by the power of my blood.”
Sara expected something to happen then, but Nan simply brushed her palms off on her apron. “Well, that’s that. Be off with you now.”
Sara met up with her mother outside the cottage, and they hurried home.
Over the next few weeks, Jane developed stinging, blinding headaches and had to lie in bed in a dark room, unable to concentrate enough to stand or eat more than a few bites. Jack visited her constantly, and Sara had to do both of their chores.
Jane looked beautiful convalescing because her hair grew back quickly, but it was nothing like the speed with which Sara’s hair started to grow.
After two weeks, Sara had to spend an hour braiding it up tight so she didn’t trip on it. After three weeks, she had to thread it up tight and then wrap it in coils around both of her arms, shoulder to wrist, under her blouse, so the weight was distributed more evenly. No blade would cut it, and the weight was giving Sara headaches of her own.
The town doctor said Jane would die if they didn’t find a way to stop her pain. Sara knew she had to do something.
The very next morning, Sara started searching the village and the surrounding forest for bird nests. She climbed up trees, and on to rooftops, and was soon sore and bruised from tree bark and falls. She found nest after nest, but not one that shone with the gold of her sister’s hair.
After another week, there was only one place left to try. The top of Crowmount. They said that the crows up there were big as bears and twice as mean. Everyone knew blackbirds liked shiny things, so even if some smaller bird had seen it first, it made a kind of grim sense that they would have offered it up to their betters, or had it taken from them to end up there.
Sara figured she could manage the climb. She was getting to be a pretty good climber, even if her cursed hair weighed so much now that it threatened to yank her head clean off her neck if she leaned back too far while climbing. She reckoned she’d be in trouble if she encountered a monster crow. The best bet against them was probably a bow and arrow, and the best shot in town was Jack.
Sara could imagine what would happen if she involved Jack. Wouldn’t Jack like being the hero, and bringing that nest back to Jane, and wouldn’t Jane like it, too? She swallowed her pride, and pulled Jack aside and told him her plan.
It took the better part of a day to climb Crowmount. There was only one good side to climb, the side facing the town. It was darn steep with the best trail snaking all over the face of the mountain, requiring a lot of doubling back. The other approaches were worse–sheer cliff faces. Sara had anticipated it would only take a few hours. It was pretty dark by the time she and Jack made it to the top and found a gnarled grey tree growing up into the stars.
Jack stood at the bottom of the tree, bow at the ready, while Sara started climbing. Only there wasn’t a single nest to be seen.
Up, up, up, she climbed. Nothing.
The branches were getting thinner and didn’t look fit to bear her weight, and she could see plainly that there was nothing up there to find. Nothing.
Sara felt tears welling up. This was supposed to be the right thing to do, her chance to fix things. She leaned back against a branch, trying to think. What had she missed? Were there other birds? Were the crows of Crowmount just a story?
The branch gave way under her weight and she felt herself tumbling out of the sky. Other branches broke her fall, each lashing like a whip as she plunged past. She could hear Jack yelling. She hit the ground, and managed to roll with it, taking some of the momentum out. While that probably kept her from breaking anything, she kept rolling and sliding, still falling. She tried to grab something, anything, to slow her descent. Her hand connected with a vine, and she caught hold, and lurched to a stop.
She clung to the side of the mountain. She’d gone over the edge, over the bad side, the back side, and was clinging to the sheer cliff face.
Up above, Jack leaned over the side and looked for her, yelling her name.
Sara held on, breathless. She couldn’t form words until she could get air in her lungs again. She rested the weight of her head and hair on one shoulder as she gasped for air. That was when she saw the cave.
There was a shelf cut into this side of the mountain, a huge cave, inaccessible by anything but flight. She might have missed it in the dark, but the moonlight gleamed off a huge nest with bits of shiny things woven into it, broken glass, mirror shards, and long bright golden strands of hair.
“It’s here!” she shouted.
Jack leaned over the edge. “I think I see it. I might be able to drop down there and get to it.”
Sara thought maybe she could climb over to it, but Jack was crazy if he thought he could just jump down to it. There wasn’t any kind of ledge sticking out of the cliff face. It was just an opening. “I don’t think…”
Jack launched himself over the side, and slid past her perch, and past the cave. He crashed to a heap on a ledge perhaps fifty feet further down the cliff side.
Great, Sara thought. Now we’re both stuck.
She felt her way over to the left. There were rocks she might be able to reach to bridge her way. She slowly pulled herself along, shifting from one tentative foot and hand hold to another.
“I’m at the cave, Jack. Hang on. I’m going to lower a rope to you.”
Sara didn’t have any rope, but she had an idea. She took off her blouse and uncoiled her ridiculous hair off of her arms and began to unbraid it. It was so long now. She re-threaded it into a single braid. She lay flat on her back on the floor of the cave, so there was as much support beneath her head as possible, and all of her weight to counter-balance. She pushed the heavy braid over the edge.
“See it?” she yelled.
“I see it. Hang on.”
The first time he put his full weight on the braid, she thought her entire scalp was going to tear off. It hurt worse than anything she’d ever felt in her life. But the hair held, and she was sure he was making progress. She realized she should have put her blouse back on first, before tossing down the braid.
Then she saw several stars wink out of sight. That was odd. She realized something very large and very black was flying out of the sky down towards them.
“Jack! Hurry. One of the crows is coming.”
“I’m almost there.”
His weight pinned her in place, as she lay topless on the floor of the cave. The bird plunged towards her, closer and closer. Her hands were free. She tried to shield her face.
She could have shaken Jack off her hair and gotten to a more protected position, but he would fall. She decided that it didn’t really matter what happened to her. Her body weighed just as much dead as alive. The braid ladder would hold. He’d climb up, deal with the crow, get the nest, and Jane would be saved.
The crow raked her chest, and the back of her right hand that she had tried to interpose. She screamed.
“Sara!” Jack shouted. He was trying to climb faster, and each yanking movement was a hot knife-plunge of pain against her skull.
The crow circled again, and plunged. Talons raked her face, and its beak pecked out Sara’s right eye. She screamed again, as blood blinded her in the other eye.
Sara gritted her teeth. Her face was good and ruined now, but that gave her an idea. An awful idea. As the blood streamed across her face, she whispered “May I always see what needs to be done, however sightless. This say I by the power of my blood.”
She saw the cave from the crow’s eyes, watching Jack readying an arrow in his bow despite its broken fletching. She saw the crow diving to protect its soft belly, and the arrow catching it clean through its throat.
She felt Jack climbing up over her. He screamed at the sight of her ruined bloody body. “Aim for its throat, Jack,” she called. “You can make the shot.”
“The arrows broke when I fell. There’s no point.”
“I ain’t asking Jack. I’m telling you. I’ve got hag sight now. You can make this shot.”
She didn’t see it happen, but she heard him pull the bow string, and she heard the crash as the crow fell out of the air. She started pulling her hair up, so she could sit upright.
Jack helped her wipe the blood out of her one eye. The right was gone, but she could see pretty well with only her left eye, and the right had plenty to see as well.
She saw that they could cut her hair now. They could bind the long braid to another damaged arrow. Jack could shoot the braided arrow up to stick fast in the tree. Then they could haul themselves back out, up the hair-rope, with the nest.
It was mad, but she saw that it would work. Jack had always been lucky, and now she could see what needed to be done. It would be easy enough to climb back down the other side, once they got back to the summit.
Jack listened to her plan with a look that said it was the most foolish plan he’d ever heard, and then went ahead and did exactly what she asked.
He’s going to make Jane a good husband, she thought, and she was surprised to realize that it didn’t even make her jealous anymore to think about it.
The town will need another Old Nan one day, she thought, and Nan could use an apprentice right now. Some of us aren’t meant to marry, she decided. We’ve got other work to do, mean work, hard work, wise work. My work.
Mae Empson writes short fiction and poetry, often referencing fairy tales, myths, or superstitions. Her fairy tale inspired publications have appeared in The Pedestal Magazine, Enchanted Conversation, and Crossed Genres. Recent and upcoming short stories and poems reference Rumpelstiltskin, Cinderella, Goldilocks, Rapunzel, the Frog Prince, Snow White, the Little Mermaid, Love like Salt, and Vasilisa the Beautiful. Her fiction has also appeared in anthologies from Prime Books, Dagan Books, and Innsmouth Free Press. Mae is a member of the Horror Writers Association, and of HorrorPNW–the Pacific Northwest chapter of HWA. Follow her on twitter at @maeempson. Read her blog at http://maeempson.wordpress.com.