The thing about having a fairytale-quality name is, you can never cut your hair. Flowing tresses are a natural prerequisite. A perky flip or sensible bob would ruin the effect.
I’d like to say that I was towerbound, vocally gifted, named after salad greens, but it wouldn’t be the truth. I was named after a Robert Browning poem. And also, liver disease.
The poem was called “Porphyria’s Lover,” about a man who wanted to keep his girlfriend perfect so badly that he strangled her with her own hair. My mother has questionable taste in literary motifs.
I picked my prince at the beginning of the semester, drawn by how delicate and pale his hands were, how he blushed and stammered when the teacher called on him to answer. He sat at the back of the room to avoid being noticed and kept his eyes averted. I’d failed to grasp that these are not useful qualities in a rescuer.
In English class, we were studying poetry by people who drowned, or else contracted devastating and incurable illnesses, by which I mean tuberculosis. I’d spent most of the unit drawing elaborate flowers on my Chuck Taylors with a marker. Daisies raced around the white rubber soles in festive procession. Irises covered the canvas uppers, and both toes were emblazoned with giant peonies. Everywhere I went was like walking in a garden.
The morning was fateful, with a sharp chill in the air and weak winter sunlight streaming in. Our teacher pointed me out to the class. He held the textbook above his head, open to the poem that was my dubious namesake. On the opposite page was a John Everett Millais print of a girl with long yellow hair and a shocked expression. Chin up, mouth open slightly, like she was waiting for something terrible to happen.
My teacher showed the book around, turning it back and forth.
“Here, stand up,” he said, and I got to my feet.
“Let your hair down,” he said, in a voice that permitted no argument. “This is the perfect opportunity for a demonstration.”
I began to remove the pins, dropping them in a pile on my desk. My hair was damp from the shower. It fell dense and heavy past my hips, curling erratically, spiraling in my hands like a web.
My teacher instructed the class to observe me where I stood, shame-faced and tangled in my own hair.
“You,” he said to the hulking football player who sat one seat over. “Do the honors, please.”
With a fearful look, the brute rose and stood next to me.
When our teacher nodded, he reached for me, not vengeful or vindictive, but cautious. I stared ahead, resting my fingertips on my desk. There was a soft pressure against my throat and I stood with hands trembling, cheeks blazing, waiting to be rescued.
At the front of the room, the teacher read aloud, striding back and forth:
That moment she was mine, mine, fair,
Perfectly pure and good: I found
A thing to do, and all her hair
In one long yellow string I wound
Three times her little throat around,
And strangled her—
“So,” he said, lowering the book. “How many times around do we have? Did you get three?”
My hair was looped once-and-a-half times, very loosely, around my neck. “It won’t go farther,” the football player said, as though offering an apology.
For the first time, I understood my hair. I knew it, a bold, secret familiar, ruled by incantation. I understood that no matter how earnestly the boy tried, it would not choke me. Instead, it trailed out into the room, tangled itself around his thick fingers and swarmed up his arms, bright yellow under the lights. It covered the walls and the floor, crept like every horror movie, every alien life-form.
In carnivorous annoyance, it approached my teacher, and saw that he was only a garden-variety villain of the basest material, hardly worth the effort. In cool exasperation, it slithered back to where my numb, indifferent prince sat, and took him by the throat.
When the coughing started, everyone in the room flinched violently, turning back to stare at him. He was leaning forward in his desk, hacking into his cupped palm. The sound made the brutish football player jerk, pulling my hair tighter. My scalp tingled sharply and I gasped, but didn’t cry out.
“That will do, I think,” our teacher said, looking disconcerted.
The football player let me go and I stepped away, shaking my hair loose from my neck, letting it spill in heavy waves down my back.
In the last row, the ineffectual prince still coughed, brutal and wet, like someone coming up out of the sea.
The thing about a fairytale is, you don’t hear the one about the princess with the means to save herself. You might get a misguided idea that those stories don’t exist, or maybe they just aren’t worth telling. But I know better. There comes a moment when the absurdity of your plight is too profound to ignore, when you don’t feel fear, but rage.
That grim, helpless moment is how witches are made.