When the children were small, they would often play their grave resurrection games back behind the prickle bushes at the Winterbear Montessori School. Each day after graceful walking and practical life and blue line work the two girls would venture out after snack to begin once again to concoct the Mother Potion from scratch. The potion, as the Girl with the Matted Hair said, would save once and for all the mothers who had died or were dying. Otherwise, the Girl with the Matted Hair said, they would die for good, and they would never come back. As it was, the Girl with the Matted Hair’s mother had died when she was a toddler and ever since then she had worked night and day to find the cure for that.
This sort of project enthralled the child and every day at recess she and her friend collected and assembled a wide assortment of ingredients and charms: rose thorns and wish bones, robin’s eggshells and goose eggshells, scrunchies and ribbons, knee scabs and matted hair (for DNA the child said) chestnut casings, glitter glue, butterfly wings, birch bark and other forest charms. Ten plucked blades of yarrow—nine discarded, the last placed in a vial of rose water; eight hairs from the tail of a black cat dipped in clay then burned to an ash. Chewed grass from the grave of the schoolmaster. They sewed a magnet into a mother’s dress and slipped fish lures into the hem. They obtained a dead wren, and sent away a black lamb, for a little black lamb foretells mourning garments within the year. They tied mint around their wrists while skipping. They mixed chamomile and mud with salt and silt and tears into a poultice and stirred it with a Hawthorne branch. Spells and banishments were many. The child carried elf stones in a velvet pouch and waited for a four-footed beast to pass in order to animate the charm. Before the magic words were spoken into the well, they covered it with a wool shawl. Lavender plucked on a Sunday night they pounded with a stone that never was moved since the world began. When the child who was gathering thistle had her back turned, the Girl with the Matted Hair snuck up on her and sunk her teeth into the child’s arm. There, she said, the blood of a child! The child screamed and drew a circle on the ground and said the magic words and a fire rushed up from the earth and a flood of water, pure and bright, sprang from her side creating a mote, separating now the child from the ring of fire. It all happened so fast that the Girl with the Matted Hair at first did not know what had happened. That was fantastic! She shouted and began to applaud. She had always suspected that the child carried the water charm inside her, and now it was verified.
Sometimes the child would carve a little figure out of a carrot from her snack for her friend, and the Girl with the Matted Hair would put it in her pocket. Together they wandered past the prickle bushes through the vale of tears, over the river of sleep, and into the fairy field. They crossed the bridge and saw Billy Goat’s Gruff and the place of the trolls, the witch’s den, and they went down to where Rumpelstiltskin and Rip Van Winkle slept, and past that to where the mothers slumbered.
After the mother died, the Girl had begun to display Matted Hair. Someone said it was her father’s fault for never combing it, but the child’s mother did not think that that was the reason and sometimes on particularly difficult days, the girl grew a pelt for additional protection.
At the very least the child’s mother might offer to drag a brush through that thicket of hair, that wilderness of grief, that sorrowing. Poor Girl with the Matted Hair (no mother), the others whispered. If her mother were alive she would have licked and licked until the fur was sleek and smooth.
Everything would have been different then.
The child admired the pelt. It was cool in the summer. It was warm in the winter. In the rain it was like a raincoat. Those who might try to break her spirit or her resolve or her heart, it frightened, and they would not come near. And she could always wear it when she visited her mother’s grave, which is when she needed the most protection of all, and there it served as a kind of armor. Even though she pretended otherwise, she could not take it off—a pelt was permanent after all. The child did not mind her friend’s pelt. The child was impervious to pelts.
The Girl with the Matted Hair lived some distance from the child and so there was always the matter of transporting her, which the mother happily did, and sometimes on the way back when the children sat together in the back seat and chattered in their own language saying boden and pish-pish and wimple, and the child would sniff the girl hard—the forest and wind and sadness on her skin—and like a mother monkey, she would pick the nits from her pelt.
The girls spoke in their code in the back seat and dreamt their dreams and planned their plans. This was in the time that they were still mini-bodens, and they were not bodens yet.
On the days the Girl with the Matted Hair came to play for the whole day they would build a tent together out of the mother’s diaphanous clothes and when it was time for her to go home, she would hide in the crimson recesses of the house and she would not come out. At these times, when the child disappeared, the father wept because the story was that the Girl with the Matted Hair resembled exactly his deceased wife—but weeping did no good. After the house was searched, the morose father would roam the forests disconsolately looking for her. The child knew that the Girl with the Matted Hair would leave her baby teeth sunk into the trunk of a tree and they shone in the dark, and at night the child could always find something of her friend again that way.
As it happened the Girl with the Matted Hair’s mother died when she was only 18 months old. She had been so young that her age was not even counted in years yet. How is that fair, she asked, and a fury filled her.
Some days the Girl with the Matted Hair forces everyone to touch the dead bird on the path, to pet the feral cat, or the mange of the dog—to put their faces close to the white moths that come from its bark—its circus of fleas, its clown cone collar, its disturbed sleep, but the child refuses. How is that fair?
Shunned by her mother, forsaken, on these days the girl felt mocked. She held a bouquet of crow feathers in her fist.
Yes, but I do not have a father, the child said. All I have is a Glove!
True enough, the Girl with the Matted Hair says, but a father is not an Absolute. No one absolutely needs one. The Girl with the Matted Hair looks to her forlorn father on the periphery. And it was true in the Valley that with each passing year there were fewer and fewer fathers to be had. Sometimes a Glove is enough, she said. Sometimes a Glove will suffice. A father isn’t a Necessity. A father isn’t a Requirement. The child shrugs. The potion: shed skin of snake. River water taken at the place it changed from fresh to salt, the rind of the elder tree, the carcass of the crow, the blood of a child. She ran a silk ribbon through a bowl of milk and then suckled the tether.
By the time the child met the Girl with the Matted Hair at the Winter Bear School, she had already begun going far off in an attempt to assuage her grief. Soon enough Resurrection Science would become all the rage, but it wasn’t yet. In certain ways, it could be said that the Girl with the Matted Hair was in the forefront of such science.
On some days the girl felt mocked by the world and mocked by the mothers and mocked by all the girls with mothers, and with extreme reserves of rage, she would turn on the child’s mother, and pouring out the potions, and destroying the endless offerings, she would peer out at her and say, not a single mother will be saved today.
Forsaken, she had been forced by their existence to the place of the humiliated. By the time the mother and child had met the girl, she had already made several forays into the forest.
She pronounced it definitively; she could locate your utmost fear. Not a single mother will be awakened by any child today. The child’s mother pats the girl’s head. If she could help to wake her mother just once, even for an instant, she would—there would not be a moment’s hesitation.
Still no one who was there will soon forget the Girl with the Matted Hair glaring that afternoon in front of her pyre, stating most gravely to the mother, you are getting sleepy. On these days the mother is cursed and she whispers and hisses from the cursed place where she is negated, canceled, erased. Some days the Girl with the Matted Hair would put a Frozen Charlotte spell on the mother and bring her to the infirmary and wait until she was pronounced blue and dead. Nonetheless, the mother would rise up from the shabby hospital where she had been placed in a row of Charlottes, frozen solid. I’ve had it, the mother says, with the Furies today, and she gets up effortlessly. There’s a flame at her shoulder and she rises as she always does, enormous and bright from the curses and cold, uncondemned.
I’ve had it with the potions, the cold, the sleep, the spells, she says, and she gets up and walks out, just like that.
Some days the coast seemed clear, and the mother thought at last she could walk around without worry—free of sad and longing children, or enraged and spiteful children who wished her nothing but harm. At last the child’s mother thought she was safe. She imagined a place free of the world’s harrowing grief, where everything was accounted for and taken care of, where all was right with the world, and that is when the Girl with the Matted Hair would appear. What was hard was not the appearance of the girl, whom the child’s mother had grown to love, what was hard was her own assumption that there might actually be a place where she would ever be safe.
—Carole Maso is the author of seven books including The Art Lover, Ghost Dance, and Break Every Rule. She is a professor of English at Brown University. Her novel Mother & Child, from which the above is excerpted, is forthcoming from Counterpoint Press in 2013. Copyright 2012 by Carole Maso.