Hair Like Fire
By Rachel Corley
The sun shines brightly through the window, the heavily painted walls gleam with color, the floorboards sparkle and glimmer in the sunlight. A teenage girl walks down the spiral stairs in the corner with one arm against the wall as she walks, feeling with just the tips of her fingers the butterflies, birds, flowers, and leaves painted on the bricks.
She’s already dressed, a light blue skirt circling the middle of her calves, bouncing against them, her bare heels brushing the soft hem with each step. Despite the circular shape allowing for resounding echoes from the softest sound, silence is abounding in the small room. Tap, tap, tap of footsteps down the stairs, a creak of the wood here and there, but that’s all. There’s no voices or neighborhood kids. In fact, there’s no neighborhood at all.
A brief creak marks the bottom step and the girl walks towards the kitchen. She is average height with a narrow build, her shoulders small and features dainty. Her hair is a tale quite the opposite. It drags along the ground and weaves up the stairs behind her, the individual strands glow like cooling embers in the morning sun.
She wanders the room while she waits for the food in the oven, her eyes scan every bit of the walls. Paint is everywhere, coating the brick in all but one place. A two-foot radius around the window is left untouched. She avoids this window completely, stops her pacing several feet away and turns back before she has to look out. There’s no need to. What can be gained from looking at that height, at the alluring color of the green grass whispering for her to come to it?
Her face turns towards the opening in the wall, whispers come into her ear. It’s calling her, telling her to just lean out; it would all be over if she went to the grass, dove for it like it meant everything in the world to her.
With a quick snap, the window’s wood panels shut the light out of the room and land inches from the tip of her nose.
“What are you doing?” The tone is harsh, rough.
“N-nothing.” The girl backs towards the kitchen.
“How many times have I told you not to lean out? It’s dangerous!” The woman’s eyes glow fiercely as she comes towards the girl. Her light hair bounces off her lean, toned body. “I can hardly leave you alone for ten minutes without you nearly falling to your death.” The woman pulls her dark green sweater tighter around her shoulders, coving the white blouse underneath.
“I wouldn’t have fallen.” If she were to leave, it would be intentional, listening to the pleas of the green and rushing blue.
“Have you done your chores yet?”
She shakes her head. “I only just got downst—”
“I’m leaving for the day,” the woman cuts in. “I expect everything to be just right when I get back. Chores done, schooling done, and you’d best be here, safe and sound.”
The girl nods, a lock of auburn hair falls in her face.
“Do I need to worry while I’m gone, Rapunzel?”
“No, you don’t. I’ll be fine.”
Her mother smiles, her mouth warm but eyes unchanging, the dark, empty color severe. She turns around, disappears through the door she came in, and locks it behind her. Rapunzel knows there are stairs there, a safe way to get to the ground, a way to feel the soft dirt and breathe in the leaves without being preceded by rushing wind.
She presses her ear to the door and counts the steps like she always has. Fifty. A muffled thud seeps through the wood. She turns the knob a quarter of the way before being blocked. Her shoulders fall, the disappointment just as fresh as the first time she tried, all those years ago, back when she’d had to strain to reach the handle.
She reopens the window with her eyes closed, then stays away, sweeping the dirt from the floor. Her eyes stay on the ground at all times, the ground she can feel, the one she loves. She tries to keep the questions she’s always asked away, but the quiet air gives too much time for them to seep back into her thoughts.
Why does she have to live in this tower? Why is Mother is so insistent on keeping her in the place she fears the most? Why must the door remain locked? Where does Mother go every day, leaving her alone until after dusk? The questions continue to spin, the whispers of the grass turning into screams, the rushing water roaring. They beg her to come, beg her to leave her prison, let it all be over. They take up all conscious thought until her brain is a tangled mess of incomprehensible noise.
The abundant feeling of despair and uncertainty leaks down her cheek. She brushes it away as her eyes wander towards that green again, her mind picturing the descent to it, soft and graceful in her head, though she knows that isn’t the reality. She drops her hair out the window and sneaks a peek at the length. It doesn’t quite brush the grass, hanging several feet above. There still isn’t enough to be worth cutting. I’ll try again tomorrow, she thinks. Surely it will be long enough by the end of the month.
She looks away and sinks to the floor beneath the window with her back to the wall, heart racing and hands trembling from the few seconds of looking. The breeze tickles the top of her head as she sits completely still, trying to hear all the sounds from outside.
The birds sing and she knows the trees wave to them. If only her fear didn’t stop her from looking a little closer, letting her lean out and take it all in. If only it didn’t make it impossible for her to reach out and touch the leaves that drift past the window… but it did.
Her ears tune into every sound. The water flowing, the man shouting, the bugs swarming around the flowerbox. Wait a second. A man shouting? She leaps up and leans further out the window than she’s ever dared to do before.
“Hello?” He looks about her age, athletic, hair glowing as bright as the sun he’s squinting into.
Rapunzel wonders if she is supposed to respond.
“Hello? I can see you!” He waves and smiles.
“Hello.” Her voice is small, the wind carries it for her.
“I’m so sorry to startle you,” the man says. “I walk this area often, I never realized anyone lived here.”
What was that supposed to mean? Why wouldn’t someone live here? She leans against the windowsill, trying to steady her shaking body. “Who are you?”
“I’m Eric, what’s your name?”
“That’s a beautiful name. Do you live here?”
“Can you come down?”
She shakes her head. That ground is too far away, so tempting, but much too far to get to. She closes her eyes, leans against the stable wall, and takes a deep, trembling breath. The only visible part of her is the long hair tumbling off the windowsill towards the dirt.
“Is this your hair?” Eric calls. She can just barely see him, his eyes are wide in disbelief. He’d clearly thought it was something else, perhaps a long rope. He gawks as it sways in the light breeze, the sunlight making the color dance like growing flames.
She drops to the floor as she confirms his suspicion loudly. She buries her head in her knees, deeply regretting her brief moment of bravery, the glance was not worth the fear filling her now. Why did the tower have to be so high up? Her heart is pounding, her stomach dropping. She wants more than anything to be on the ground. Even to leap and have it all be over would be better than this.
The oven continues to force heat into the pan inside of it, long forgotten by the girl crumpled in the corner. She can hear Eric’s voice attempting to talk to her.
She tunes him out, a miserable slump against the wall. His voice cries out loudly now, echoing from the ground far below the window. He sounds panicked, yelling the girl’s name over and over.
The smell of smoke rushes into her and she opens her eyes to see the oven engulfed in flames. She screams and jumps up but has no idea what to do. The flames spread through the kitchen and she knows it won't be long until the room is filled. She hears Eric yelling and runs to the window to call back to him. The bright sun burns her eyes in the contrast to the black spreading through the room. She doesn’t know how much longer she can stand here, but there’s no way out and the flames are far too big to smother.
She looks back out the window. The grass is so bright, the water so clear. She grips the sides of the window frame and begins to climb up.
“Wait!” Eric calls. “Throw me your hair.”
Rapunzel freezes. How will that help?
“I’ll climb up!” Eric yells.
What will that solve? She doesn’t understand, but drops her hair out the window anyway, then braces herself against his weight.
He climbs in and his eyes fix on the locked door that leads to the stairs, the floorboards creak as he runs there. She’s already pulled and tugged, the slab of wood refused to move all her life. Perhaps he’ll have better luck, she thinks, dropping to the ground where the last bits of breathable air remain. She watches him brace himself and pull at the handle, the metallic clicking of the lock pierces through the cracks and pops of growing flames.
One, two, three times he tries. Four, five, six more tugs. Seven, eight, nine, the flames are growing, the smoke thick. Nine, ten, his coughs ring in her ears. Eleven, the wood creaks. Twelve, thirteen, fourteen, a tremendous noise and the door breaks from the hinges.
He grabs her hand, yanks her up, and pulls her through the doorway, through the cloud of dust and smell of splintered wood. Her long hair snags on the old, weathered steps, but she doesn’t slow down and follows Eric closely. He forces the door at the bottom open with a running start and ram of a shoulder. Fresh air rushes into their burning lungs, the sun soaking into the ash coating their skin.
They dive into the outside world where they stand together, looking up at the smoking tower, the only home she’d ever known. The grass calls to her again and she goes to it, gasping for fresh air in the scent of the dirt, the stranger beside her doing the same.
“Are you… alright?” He gasps, rolling onto his back, his eyes ignoring the smoke curling through the air, focusing only on the girl beside him. Her whole body presses against the grass as through trying to sink into it, become it.
Their breathing is the only sound she can hear besides the occasional crash from far above, her only home falling apart in a whirlwind of mindless chaos. Her mind jumps from joy of the solid ground to aching the loss of everything familiar, from green grass to burning paintings, flowing water to blackened floors, flower petals to flying book pages.
She sits up and gathers her hair close to her. The ends are singed, but it doesn’t matter, she no longer needs the length to escape.
“I’m free,” she whispers. The tower is ruined and her entire world is gone, but the grass is just as soft and fresh as she’s imagined. But as much as she’d imagined the grass, she’d never considered what she’d do when she got to it.
Should she leave? Should she find Mother? Wait for her to get back?
Eric stood up and held out his hand. “Come on, let’s get away from here.”
Rapunzel hesitated, then let him help her up and followed him away from the tower.