As a child she had miraculous hair, of a thickness and lustre remarkable to behold.
As she grew older, imagine their surprise when her seven captors discovered that, whenever the lass dreamt in the bluest depths of night, her hair would grow at an accelerated rate, nearly visibly so. Depending on the nature of her dreams (the content of which she could never recall and her keepers only guess at), her hair spun forth in colors of marvelous intensity: satin golds flecked with scarlet; glossy blacks, so rich as to appear wet to the touch; lawny emeralds; the powdery pinks of moth wings. The strands pouring forth in waves, intermittently warping and woofing as if imbued with a life all their own, and in every manner of braid: milkmaid, waterfall, bowtie, fishtail, lattice, mermaid, cobra, rope chain. Ladder.
Her captors designed ways to profit from her uncommon talent, trussing the hair into half square bales and shipping them as far away as the courts of Lahk-djinn and the isles of Hurqalya to feed the cravings of balding queens and foppish dukes.
The growing of the hair took a toll. Mornings after a night’s passionate dreaming, her keepers would enter her chambers—wading through the waist-high drifts resplendent in their fibrous lacery, some of which had folded a dense protective nest about her person—and find her emaciated, drawn, collar bones sticking out, skin taut.
“This hair of hers,” the captors would declare, “is a garden, and we the gardeners; we needs must nurture the soil to protect these gifts given us.” And so they rejuvenated the girl each day with creams and confections, cheeses and iced wines.
By evening her form had returned to its former state, her skin once again flushed and supple. As they tucked her in each night, the captors–her gardeners, as they now called themselves–would pinch her forearm, or press a cheek, nodding with approval as the pliant skin momentarily turned white before blushing. After locking her in they would retire to the banquet hall to toast their entrepreneurial initiative. Over time they concocted superstitions and elaborate rituals, prayers and chantings to ensure the nightly harvest, although none of this had any effect upon the young woman whatsoever, her fecund dreaming born solely of her own enigmatic constitution.
The gardeners grew wealthy beyond their expectations, so much so that they were able to reduce shipments to create scarcity, driving up prices one, two, five hundred fold. They began to stockpile the wondrous hair for themselves, stuffing entire wings of the castle with her mountains of curls and tresses, so that seamstresses might fashion for them new flaxen wardrobes, artisans weave tapestries and rugs of esoteric design, upholsterers cloak furniture in handsome fabrics. As they used her hair to cover their bodies, fill their mattresses, and decorate rooms brimming with silky objets d’art, the gardeners began to think that they themselves were the progenitors of this remarkable gift. At night, as they passed out in their chairs and fell into dreamless sleep, they imagined they could hear the sloughing of the woman’s hair as it fell to the floor in billows up in the tower, and fancied that this was in fact the soft pulse of their own breathing.
Word spread throughout the provinces of “the gold-haired girl,” this “maiden of the celestial mane.” Suitors made pilgrimages to seek her hand. But no matter how splendid and ornate their benefactions, how showy their feats of physical and intellectual prowess, the gardeners prevented an audience with the young woman and turned them away.
She, however, was not unaware of this endless flow of suitors, observing as she did their comings and goings from her tower window. And so at night, as the enslaving gardeners slept dreamless in their drunken comas, she would let down a luscious rope of her hair, up which two or three and sometimes four lucky suitors might climb and service her throughout the night before descending just before dawn.
These active nights took the place of her dreaming; the growing of the hair slowed to a crawl; the gardeners grew suspicious. They refrained from their nightly imbibing and kept watch after the castle had retired for the night. And this is how they learned of the suitors scurrying up into her room. In the predawn hours they waited at the base of the rope, and cut down the men as they dropped to the ground, piking their heads about the base of the tower as grim warnings, effectively halting any further trysts. Afterwards they scolded the girl, their “mistress of the miraculous ringlets,” cautioning that this gift of hair was not hers but theirs, as they were the ones who nurtured this garden, they the ones who had the raw material molded into rare and priceless adornments, they the ones who fed her, bringing her flesh back to life each and every day.
That night the young woman dreamt a dream so fierce and deep that her hair erupted in a storm. When dawn approached the room was filled to the ceiling with gleaming tufts. From her hair she wove one last rope which she tied to the window and let fall, then climbed down to the ground where she set fire to the braid, turning it into a bright fuse racing upward into the tower window. Her room erupted into a conflagration, quickly consuming the roof and spreading in seconds throughout the castle. After packing dense swaths of hair into the door seams of the castle’s entrance, setting them aflame as well, she stood back and listened to the ungodly shrieking of the seven gardeners being burned alive. Then she collapsed, spent from her night of furious dreaming as the smell of fiery hair, which had the scent of scorched hazelnuts, drifted through the morning air.
One lone suitor, a carpenter from the southern hills who had escaped the slaughter of his companions but had remained encamped in the woods, saw her collapse to the ground after setting the castle afire and carried her to his modest home where he nursed her back to health. When she had regained consciousness he sat on the edge of his bed, smiling, and told her she would never again have to spin her lovely hair for her captors, that he would take care of her, it being just the two of them from then on. Whereupon she asked him for his knife, which he gave her, and she cut armfuls of locks from her head and tossed them, one by one, onto the man’s hearth where they hissed and curled and dissolved in the flames.
Then told the man, I am no garden, and with that walked out of the cabin and into the wilderness, scalp shorn and bleeding. And as she walked, deeper and deeper into the jade blue forest, abandoning the path and dissolving into dense overgrowth, tendrils and delicate vines uncurled from the canopy above, reaching down to tickle her scalp, attend to her cuts, root within her skin. As she walked a luxuriant crown of greenery and flowers blossomed, the knots and bunches dropping in curtains down to her waist, down to her feet, trailing behind her in an olive train of ecstatic living filigree.
For she was no longer dreaming. Was, in fact, wide awake and brightly so as the forest, finally, returning the favor, was dreaming for her.