Soft Bundles by Meghan Lousie Wagner

At night, mother feeds me hair. I slurp it down like spaghetti. She rolls me into bed and locks the door. Only after I begin to dream, a mountain girl comes to unspool it from my throat. In the moonlight, I watch her twist it into tight spindles around her knuckles. Golden flecks sparkle off her skin. Her head is bald and smooth and when I to reach up and touch her—to feel if she is real the same way I am real—she swipes a sharp hand across my neck.

Each morning, I find glitter on the floor. It pricks my bare feet as I walk to the mirror to check my throat.

In the kitchen, mother makes bread. I show her my scars. She punches dough against the counter.

“Did they get it all this time?” she asks.

* * * *

Our town is small and we are not the only ones in debt to the mountain girls. Every telephone pole has a yellow sign, CASH FOR DREAMS: CALL THE MOUNTAIN GIRLS. I pass them on the way to school but never stop to read the fine print. It’s bad luck to know about the deals your mothers make. Everyone has heard stories about curious kids who sneak letters out of mailboxes and then, the next day, are found drowned in their bathtubs. Or impaled by tree branches in their sleep. Or, worse, they wake up toothless, without tonsils—no good to anyone.

* * * *

Some mothers tell stories to help their children swallow hair. They say it’s made from magic sugar cane. That it’s been spun into caramel. They promise if you eat it all, then you’ll grow into the prettiest woman in town (no matter how you look now), you’ll be the richest man (no matter how poor you are now), you’ll have the happiest life (no matter how miserable you are now).

If, if, if…

My mother never lies. Not like that. After dinner, she takes hair from the fridge and combs it across the counter. Some nights it’s brown, some nights black, some nights it’s as soft and silver as the snow on the mountain tops. Her forearms are tight from pounding bread all day, but her fingers are delicate. She twirls it into soft bundles of noodles.

“If you don’t eat it all,” she says, “they’ll only bring more tomorrow.”

“And what if I don’t eat that?”

“They’ll bring more,” she says, shrugging.

“They bring more anyway.”

“Exactly,” Mother says, pushing a bowl toward me.

* * * *

The mountain girls come to my school’s graduation. Their golden heads cast a glare in the stadium. None of us will admit we know them. On our way to pick up diplomas, they wave their yellow signs. They cheer the loudest.

* * * *

Years later, when I am grown, I am neither beautiful nor rich nor happy. My throat is too old for swallowing hair and now my mother wanders town, tacking the yellow signs to telephone poles. At night, we eat melon dipped in salt. She tells me I should get married and have children of my own.

“Then,” she says, spitting out a seed, “we can get back in with the mountain girls.”

The next day, I take a train headed to the coast, far from the mountains. There’s another town on the shore that smells of sand and seaweed. I walk past telephone poles with blue signs, CASH FOR DREAMS: CALL THE GROTTO GIRLS. The clouds hang low. I stop inside a salt water taffy shop and buy a box to bring home for mother. The girl who sells it to me has crosshatches on her neck. She pretends not to notice mine.

I take another train going north, further from the mountains. When I arrive in the city, I have eaten most of the taffy. The sky is dark, but the lights are bright. Electronic billboards line the streets. Images flicker on their screens. CASH FOR DREAMS: CALL THE CONCRETE GIRLS.

I stay up all night, drifting past neon lit bars and storefronts until I am back at the train station. I have no more money for a ticket back to the mountains. Inside the terminal, I see a booth. CASH FOR DREAMS.

“Tell us about your dreams,” says a bald, golden headed girl.

Since I don’t dream, I tell her about the mountain girls. She offers me a clipboard and pen. I sit on a cushioned chair.

“Can you help me get home?” I ask.

“We can arrange a deal,” she says, showing me the fine print. It’s the first time I’ve ever seen it myself. My instinct is to look away. But I want to know. To finally know what it is they take.

“Oh,” I say, disappointed by the obviousness of it. “I’ll have to give you children.”

“Only their dreams.”

“But I have to have children?”

“We offer alternative plans.”

“How can I get back to the mountains?”

She flips a page in the clipboard. “We have plans for that, too.”

* * * *

In the morning, as promised, I awake in my bed. I look out the window and see mountains. There is no glitter on the floor.

In the kitchen, I find Mother at the table. I take out a blade and shear her head. She stands still, but winces when I move too close to her ear. Her crinkled, silver hairs fall onto the floor. I sweep them up and carefully twirl them into bundles. Once I wrap them in plastic, I pack them into my basket, crooked beneath my arm.

“It’d be easier if you had children,” she says, shaking her bald head.

I leave the kitchen and go to feed the town.

 

Meghan Louise Wagner is a writer from Cleveland, OH. Her work has appeared in places such as AGNI, Shirley Magazine, matchbook, Hobart, and X-R-A-Y.

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