They say your hair keeps growing after you die, but it isn’t true. It’s just your skin shrinking away from long-dead cells as if dissociation might somehow undo death. Most people have over 100,000 hairs on their head. The day she left me, I only asked for a lock. If I’d asked for more she would have said no. She gave me 157 strands.
They were dark, glossy brown and the same length as the line from the inside of my knee to the top of my inner thigh that she used to trace with her kisses. She was used to my strange requests and it wasn’t until she was holding the lock out to me that she hesitated. I think she would have asked why, but the tears were rolling down my cheeks. Instead, she just let me take it.
We were camped by a river surrounded by weeping willows with draping branches that screened her from my view as she walked away. My pain radiated out to my breasts and down my body, fusing me to the ground. My tears rolled down to the river, making it swell in its banks. The wind whipped the branches of the willows across my face. They tangled with my hair until it was impossible to tell where the tree ended and I began.
I came to my senses when I smelled springtime — ducklings, sweet hyacinths, and friendlier rain. I reached into my pocket for her lock of hair and drew out a single strand. I tore my own hair from the grasp of the willow and knelt down to dig into the damp earth. I planted that single strand in the ground; that strand as long as my lap where she would lay like a newly born baby with the shape of an adult woman. When the hair was safely nestled in the earth, I watered it with my tears and blew springtime’s breath into her growing lungs.
She grew quickly, her body racing to match the age of the hair it seeded from. Soon I had a companion again, but that growth does not slow. She reached the years we had been together in the blink of an eye and before I knew it, I was watching her walk away. My heart breaking all over again.
I tried all the different seasons’ breaths (except winter, of course, I wouldn’t waste a precious strand like that). But in the end, she always left. Finally, I reached into my pocket and a single strand met my touch. The last one. Even as she grew before me, I felt the pain of her leaving start.
This time, when she pushed the willow branches aside to leave me, I called out “May I come with you?”
She stared at me for a long moment, one eye slightly wider than the other in that look she always gave me when I was being ‘other’ and then she nodded.
We traveled to the city together, not touching. I could feel my pain wrapping around us, pulling me forward. When we got to the hospital my companion started to look confused. When we got to the room she stopped in the doorway and began to cry.
I walked to the bed and looked down at my lover. Her hair was white and her skin was wrinkled from a lifetime I had not been there to see. She didn’t have much time left. Her eyes were fading, but they widened all the same when she looked at my face.
“You look just like when I left you by the river,” she said. I sat down and held her dry textured hand in mine.
My last companion — number 157 — stepped into the room and stood by the bed. She was only weeks from this state herself but I had never been there to see it before. Right now, she looked just like my lover did when she walked away 50 years ago. She sat down and held my lover’s other hand.
The old woman looked at me with one eye slightly wider than other and tears tracing down the streambeds of her wrinkled cheeks. “Is she like you? Will she live forever?”
I shook my head and my companion looked confused again.
“May I have another lock of your hair?” I asked, and I saw my lover start to understand. She shrank away from me and my companion then, pulling her hands away as if that dissociation might change the reality sitting before her.
We stayed like that for a long time before she responded. The gap between each of her breaths growing longer and longer.
“No, my love. Find something else to grow,” she said.
Her breath became ragged and then silence fell as I watched her life slip away from her.
My tears poured down to the floor and flooded the hallways. I leaned forward and kissed her lips while they were still warm, blowing winter’s breath into her old lungs. Her body stayed motionless and quickly cooling, but her white hair grew so long it filled the room, filled the hospital, and carried me out of its doors into the sunshine cradled in the strands of her death.
When it finally stopped, it spilled me out onto the road. I knelt on the rough asphalt and watched my tears spread as sheets of water to fall down the drains nearby. I don’t know how long I knelt like that. It could have been a minute, a day, a season, a year.
“Are you OK?” a voice asked from behind me.
I turned to face the sound. My eyes traced up black skinny jeans and a loose singlet to a face framed in flowing red hair. My breath caught.
“Maybe,” I said and the woman smiled.
I was more prepared this time, it only took me a week to convince her. The hairdresser gave me the ponytail as she cut it from her locks — 100,000 strands.
Melanie Harding-Shaw is a speculative fiction writer, policy geek, and mother-of-three from Wellington, New Zealand. She was a finalist for Best Short Story in the 2019 Sir Julius Vogel Awards, and her work has recently appeared in Daily Science Fiction, Breach Zine, and others. You can follow her at www.MelanieHardingShaw.com, on Twitter @MelHardingShaw and on Facebook.