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There are a thousand ways to love a snake but only one way to kill it.

Story by Shreya Vikram (Read author interview) December 21, 2020

Art by Faris Mohammed

My daughter’s hair is black. It gleams with oil, hot under the sun, hot in my fingers. When I braid it, I lace the sections so tightly her scalp bares itself, dark brown and naked. Each time a strand loosens from its root, I rub it in between my palms so that it forms a ball, which I hold in between my toes. When I am done, the ball is half the size of a fist. Mama it hurts, she says, whining softly, holding her scalp as if to protect it from my hands, but she should know better by now.

My daughter’s hair is black and browns under the sun if she exposes it in the summers. I keep her in, I boil sesame oil with fenugreek seeds and curry leaves. I pour hot spiced oil onto her scalp. I dig my fingers in and press till she stiffens and strains against my touch. In the bathroom, she sits at my feet, her naked body hunched while I scrub shikai into the oiled mass of her hair. Back and forth, back and forth her head bobs as I scrub, as if it is only vaguely attached to her neck. The shikai burns her eyes if she keeps them open. My eyes, she shouts, scrambling for water so she can rinse the burning from her face. I can’t see, I can’t see. She is a blinded girl, a needing one. She should have kept them closed. Keep still, I say, taking the water away from her and pouring them over her eyes myself. Her face is turned up towards me; she can see again.

My daughter’s hair is a black sheet that falls to her hips, browning under the sun, a living breathing thing. After I braid her hair, my daughter kneels; she presses both her hands together, her head bowed, then places her forehead onto the floor in prayer. May your hair never stop growing, I tell her. This is what I pray for my daughter. That she may rest in her grave, her hair a joyless growing mass, cocooning her corpse in black.

My daughter’s hair is a black straight corpse that falls to her hips, browning under the sun, a living singing thing, with life. When I present my daughter to the family, I let them awe over her hair, I turn her around so they may see the length of her braid, admire its thickness. Yes, I say. Yes, she has been blessed. Of course, she will never cut it, how could she? Shikai and oil, that’s what it needs. Yes, I wash it myself, I do. I braid it each day. Look at it, half the length of her body and the thickness of her fist, heavy with oil and snaking down her back, an alive thing.

My daughter’s hair is fine, easily torn, a black straight sheet that snakes to her hips, pulling at her scalp, browning under the sun, a living dying thing. When there are lice burrowed in the black, we sit for hours underneath the sun, browning. I use a comb with bristles as sharp as knives to hunt for the pests. They tumble onto my palms and I split their bodies in half with my nails. When there is a particularly big one, I show them to her and we awe over it together. Her scalp is free of lice afterwards, streaked with wounds inflicted by the comb. There is no beauty without disaster, I tell her. I peel the ugly skins of overripe pomegranate, point out the crystal-seeds that fall out. I place them on her tongue, one by one. Do you want this or not? What will you do for it, daughter? The lice lay dead beside us, browning. My fingers are stained with red by the time we are done.

My daughter’s hair is parted down the middle, a black straight snake that slips to her hips, browning under the sun, a lying dying thing. Once, she asks me to undo the part, to smooth her hair back, to forgo the braids and let her hair sway in a ponytail. I boil the oil, I scald her scalp, I scrub the shikai into her eyes. What are you thinking, I ask her. What are you thinking.

My daughter’s hair is cut. Look what it has attracted, this lying dying thing. Yes, I warned her not to do it. Yes, I showed her what happens to the women without hair, their barren scalps. Yes, I have tried to braid it, to soak it in oil and pull each tiny strand behind and tie it in place. My daughter sits where I have placed her, she faces the mirror and looks herself in the eye. Silently her hair grows, a headless snake, mask undone. A blinded girl, this one, dying under the sun.

About the Author

Shreya Vikram is a writer based in India. A Dorothy West Scholar, she has been recognized by The Adroit Prizes for Prose. Her work is forthcoming in Hobart, Rumpus, Up the Staircase Quarterly, Ruminate and elsewhere.

About the Artist

Faris Mohammed is a photographer from Kerala, India.

This story appeared in Issue Seventy of SmokeLong Quarterly.
SmokeLong Quarterly Issue Seventy
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The SmokeLong Quarterly Comedy Prize 2021!

This competition is no longer accepting entries. Watch for the long list coming soon! The four winners of the competition will be featured in Issue 74 of SmokeLong Quarterly coming out near the end of December.