Birds' Nest Soup
Call me Medusa. When I stopped combing my hair, both friends and family exiled me to a ruinous castle on a deserted island. You look dirty that way, they said. They preferred the curls cut back before they acquired a life and form of their own. But I wouldnít do it. And they refused to look upon me resembling the mad, the homeless, the Rastafarian, so I sailed away across the sunlit sea with my lover, to the island.
The island was full of creatures that reveled in what I had allowed to follow its course. My dredlocks caught the pollen from the air. Bees followed me, lured by the scent, hunting frustrated for the juicy infrared tongue leading to nectar. They spun around my head. The noise was deafening.
My hair became one huge knot, smaller knots orbiting closely. As I bathed beneath the waterfall twigs and leaves were washed from it.
Your hair scratches me when we sleep, my lover whined. Itís full of pine needles and thorns. So I began to wrap my head in linen.
This soon proved unnecessary. One morning, he was gone. I searched the whole island, but he was nowhere, not in the groves, or the forest, or the rocky dry meadows. He was not in the palace, or down by the lagoon. I went to the pier, now nearly fallen into the bay. The boat was still moored. I had learned to read the track of any creature that traveled over, on or under the sea--a subtle trick of my motherís family--and he had not left the island.
Returning to the palace, I noticed a slab of alabaster in the corner of my bedroom. I knew it had not been there before. It was highly polished and not much carved. I embraced it and heard his heart beating in the stone. But by then a nest of birds moved into my hair and I couldnít hear too well, over their noise.
I abandoned the bed and slept upright, hunched over an altar of cushions. I did not want to roll over in my sleep and crush the baby birds. I listened to their songs all day and thought that the stone might be a message from my lover. Perhaps I had ignored him in order to better hear the sounds of my island. I had spoken very little since arriving--there was no need for it. When I did speak, my voice was rusty from disuse. I could only hiss like a snake. The birds fled.
That was just as well, because soon snakes really began to enter my window, wide open to catch the breeze and much more accessible than the weaver birdsí limb. They moved into my hair and whispered into my ears, attracted by the gold hoops that were suspended there. I never saw them unless I looked in the mirror: we were tenants in a segregated building. There was little visual contact between floors.
It is now that visitors came to shatter my peace. My mother and sisters, my aunts and both grandmas, cousins, old girlfriends. Even nieces grown up in my absence, now women. Seeing them I was forced to realize how long I had been there. It was longer than I thought.
When they came, I heard the clicks of their expensive and purposeful shoes on the marble floor of the atrium. I tried to identify them by scent but they all reeked of cologne and I could not name them. Their perfume was heavy, made me dizzy from a distance.
Once they had navigated the forest of pillars surrounding the atrium and actually found my chambers, they would beg. They wanted, they insisted, that I come home. I was promised silk suits and leather pumps, trips to the salon and Cancun, a job, a husband. Just comb your hair and come with me.
By now my hair was beginning to support its own little ecosystem. I hid in the shadows and refused gently to step out, knowing the sight of me and the snakes would send them screaming back to their boat. And those snakes were never more than little garter snakes, thin as a rat tail, gentle, more like gardeners than hunters. But when I stepped forward, my visitor had disappeared leaving only a slab of stone and a scent of disinfectant falling like a toxic mist where they had stood.
Green marble, black marble, soapstone. Over time I collected a bunch of these stones and set them up in the courtyard, and would sit in the evening and watch the sunset set these stones on fires. Obsidian, agate, malachite. It was only when lit by the dying sun that I could see who they had been, when that fierce golden light would seem to illuminate them from within, and their faces would be revealed, melted in that light.
These visitors had all asked if I was happy, actually happy with what I was doing, and the question remained on my mind. Was I happy? I no longer had to ask that question. On the island joy was redundant. There was no emotional inventory to take. I gathered my food, I watched birds migrate, I saw storms move in and pass by my dry bright home in the sizzling sea.
And I had come to love my snakes that I could only see in the mirror, their momentary tongues with ancient stories never repeated, their dark eyes glittering with every secret. Other creatures lived up there now, I could hear their clicks and chirps. My visitors asked if I was lonely. I was never alone. I was at the center of this tiny forest. It grew from within and spread its embrace outward. It loved my flesh without demand or criticism. Its living music included my heartbeat, its forest noise included my breath.
One morning that noise was stilled. I awoke and felt a heaviness on my head. I looked in the mirror. A tree python, six feet of electric green phallic predator was sitting on my head, hunting in my hair. It was so brazen and blatant, I found myself afraid. This was something very different. I had been part of the scenery, a singing tree, the benevolent environment. Now I felt like a host, exploited and unloved; there was no symbiosis, no reciprocity. Once it devoured my companions it would fill its life with my own.
I began to sharpen a razor.
This unaccustomed sound, like the violent whispers of distant storms, put the rest of my companions into a panic. The python fled first, luckily, but even then there was still a stranger in the forest. Me. The razor. Suddenly, weíre civilized again. The exodus began. I leaned over a basin and put the razor to my hairline. Vines of hair began to fall, blue tailed salamanders, green lizards, mice and shrews, little brown spiders, the crickets that had sung me to sleep, all panicking as they spilled into the basin and try to climb out. Blossoms and grasses fell out, spider webs and tiny nests. But I saw no snakes: none. They were long gone, fled from the python before I even woke up. I sobbed as I lathered my head with cassia soap and brought the blade in closer. Soon I was bald as an egg.
I went down to the pier, pointed my leaky boat across the smooth sea, back to where I had come from. I was defeated. I had no idea that the way I looked would suddenly be in fashion when I returned. I didnít know that paparazzi would soon follow me, photographing my bald head, much as the bees on the island had spun around me before. All I knew was that I was defeated. I rigged up a black sail and left exile, sobbing, even while dormice were carrying off locks of my abandoned hair to line their nests, in some cranny between slabs of palace marble, where the snakes couldnít reach them.