The hairdresser, Unaflette, first came to the northern town to learn from the great coiffure artists in the region.
Everyone in town wore long hair in those days—children, grown folk, household beasts, beasts of the wild. Even trees and flowers bore long and thick filaments. Even the insects! The bumblebees bore the thickest and most luxuriant coats in all the country.
And those who lost their hair—by illness or nature—even they bore weighty wigs.
Those who never visited the region would ask why. Why did all insist on having such long locks?
The answer was a single word.
Their winter season was the longest in all the world.
Springs were lush, but they bloomed and wilted in only two months. Summers were warm and welcome, but fierce and fleeting like young love. Autumns lingered longer, bringing quick harvest days chased by chill and frosty nights.
And the frost of night would soon seep into the day as winter approached and settled in the land.
In the early days, before lamp oil and phosphors were plentiful, the people of the region relied on two methods to keep themselves warm during such winters. Fires and fur. Long hair helped to supplement the fur. And for those who did not have the means to hunt or purchase furs, they had to make good use of every inch of hair. They would pile it atop their heads as hats, or if they cut it, they would weave it together and use it as fabric.
Elsewhere in the country, when someone died, it was customary for the family to save a lock of hair as a remembrance. But in that town, the dead were shorn of all their hair—unless they received special permissions to retain it. It was their last gift to the world of the living. And the responsibility of the living was to make honorable use of that hair.
The people of the town made honorable use of hair indeed—both the hair of the living and that of the dead. They wove hair into blankets for babes, and ropes for tying. They wove things into their hair to help keep them warm during winter and help them carry small items without losing them. In time, they made charming use of their hair as well, tying, twisting, weaving, packing, dying, and combing it into shapes and patterns that the world had never before seen. The styles served a purpose to provide comfort in all seasons. But they also served the purpose of displaying beauty of form and cleverness of design.
Hair became a point of pride for the people of the town.
The people had long lustrous hair of many shades and textures that could be put into various styles. Through the hot summers and warm springs, people needed to keep their hair long because winter was always around the corner, but they needed a way to keep their hair from stifling and suffocating them.
So the people would tie and wrap and dress their hair in clever and comely ways. And hairdressers from around the world came to observe and learn and experiment. And soon, the town became known for their beautiful and inventive hairstyles. Some residents of town even toured the country to show off their long locks and their unique hair styles.
Unaflette’s specialty was braids. And she was first drawn to the town upon hearing stories of the fantastic feats that some of the townsfolk performed with their hair. One such feat, which she witnessed herself when they came to her own city, was that of a famed strongwoman named Val Majbut, who wore her hair in two braids. In their shows, her husband would tie her braids to the axle of a wagon in which would sit half a dozen volunteers from among the audience. The strongwoman would brace herself against her braids, and begin to slowly drag the wagon. Then the wagon’s wheels would be removed. And she would repeat the feat to the sounds of disbelieving gasps. The strongwoman would hang from and even swing from her braids.
Unaflette approached the strongwoman after the show. She had meant to observe the quality of the strongwoman’s braids during the demonstration. But she had been so swept away by the wonder of the feats that she had forgotten.
To her surprise, Unaflette had no need to introduce herself. She was warmly welcomed into the costume tent, for Val Majbut and the people of her town were fond of hairdressers.
“You must let me tie your braids,” Unaflette said. And though she was not shy of other folk, she surprised herself with the boldness of her words
So began a partnership and a friendship that would see them through many cold winters and many bold words.
At first, Unaflette simply sought to strengthen the strongwoman’s braids, so that Val could perform her feats more safely and with greater confidence that they would not snap as they once had done in her first year of touring the region. Val had been forced to cut the rest of her tour short that year, returning home in unexpected defeat instead of certain triumph. Val was strong, but she was also quite charming, and the lashes of her beautiful brown eyes took after the hair on her head, being long, thick and black. Her charm and her strength were drawing larger and larger crowds during her tour. Had her braid not snapped, she might have earned double the wages she had that first tour. So she was eager to receive any help keeping her locks as strong as the rest of her body.
Unaflette obliged. But she didn’t just braid the strongwoman’s hair. She opened a small shop and began to receive other patrons among the townsfolk.
First, she started simply with only the hair. She would weave smaller braids into one big braid. She would weave different kinds of braids—ones that appeared like the weave of a basket and ones that appeared like the shimmering scales of a fish. Then she began weaving and tying hair up with braids of ribbons and struts made of flexible twigs. Once, she made a hairstyle by weaving in a plant that attracted butterflies, so when the lady went to a garden party, her hair was always fluttering with butterflies.
Another time, she dyed each lock of a townswoman’s hair different colors, over many weeks. And it was a mystery to all what the final design would be. Then she braided and braided over the course of two hours, and the pattern revealed itself. It replicated one of the most famous paintings of the nature spirits by their country’s most venerated painter. Had he been alive, he would have been delighted. For it was well-known that he fussed often with his hair and never liked it. He had thin straight hair and had always envied those with thick and curly hair. And he had been a great lover of wigs.
It seemed a golden age had descended upon the town. For tailors soon followed the hairdressers, designing gorgeous garb to accompany the townsfolk’s magnificent manes.
The town could weather the long cold winters in modern times as they never had before. They still had their hair to thank. For while they no longer needed to warm themselves with their long locks, the prosperity that their renowned hair had brought the town served to provide them with the fuel and materials and stores they needed to stay warm and well-guarded.
Still, there were always those who opposed the growing opulence of the town’s fashions, in favor of simpler times, when the braids and plaits and sweeps of hair served a purpose beyond beauty and charm. Young children rebelled against the fanciful styles, sometimes cutting their hair short, or wearing it loose and unbound. Some folk wore their hair tied in knots according to the style of the town’s early settlers. Most were content only to admonish that their past must not be forgotten as they strode into their future. But there were a few who longed to do more than remember and honor the past. There were those who longed to return to it.
So it came to pass that one such citizen rose through the ranks of the town’s leadership and became the mayor.
The new mayor wanted to return to the times when all the citizens wore their hair down and in clean braids. A time when the only purpose that hair served was to keep them warm. Before it became what he deemed silly decoration. He despised the idea that the town’s distinguishing feature was something so superficial and frivolous as the style of their hair.
To some degree, he was right. Hair was not the only accomplishment that the town could boast of. They were a town of industrious and inventive people. Because of the long winter, their harvests were not the best, so they made good use of what they were able to grow, and they found ways to preserve and extend the life of their perishable foods. Their farmers and scholars presented and taught these methods of growing, harvesting, and preserving to visitors from all around the country. Their woodsmiths carved magnificent furniture. And even those who profited from showing their hair, folk like Val Majbut, demonstrated other talents and demonstrated the hardiness of the town.
Yet, the new mayor believed, they were currently only known—at best—as the town of the most long-haired folk in the world. At worst, they were thought of as vacuous fools who only pondered on how they would arrange their hair in the various seasons of the year.
Most of the people wondered why it was any of the mayor’s business what they did with their hair, so long it was no danger to others. But none heeded the new mayor’s concerns much until he passed his first edict.
Before another year passed, all who were not born in the town must leave it.
A meeting was held in the great town hall, to debate the mayor’s edict. And to protest the proposed punishments for not following it: outrageous fines, imprisonment, even banishment. As was the custom of the town, according to an old rule that had never been stricken from their laws, a new mayor’s first edict must be upheld. The town council, its judges, and its other leaders, could not argue against it, unless the mayor allowed it. But the mayor’s edict would drive out all those who had helped the town to thrive and prosper. The scholars and sculptors of hair. The weavers and benders of braids.
The hairdressers. And all those who had followed them into the wondrous and welcoming town.
“Come now, Master Mayor,” Val said, crossing her well-muscled arms. “Your ancestors came here from afar, just as mine did, and just as the newest folk of our town have. They built this town, true. But so did those who came after them, build and rebuild. And those who came after them. And those who come here now, and those who come here after we are long dead. Each generation will build upon the triumphs of the last.”
“I have no quarrel with those who build upon the the legacy of our ancestors,” the new mayor said, sitting upon the stage. “But I take exception with those who would erase that legacy altogether, until our ancestors and their ways and their wisdom are forgotten.”
“Not everything that our ancestors did and believed was wise,” Val countered.
“And who are we to judge that, Madam Majbut?”
“We are the descendants. We are living. And it is our calling to honor our ancestors not only by following their every custom, but by correcting their mistakes, and making customs of our own. We must not blindly follow the customs of our ancestors, else we would all still be living in caves.”
Applause followed, and shouts of “Here, here!”
“We must heed!” Mister Majbut said, gazing at his wife with pride.
Val was a favored daughter of the town. Her words were met with pride and admiration from most of those who were present in the packed town hall.
Unaflette chose that moment to stand and raise her marker for permission to speak. She knew that her friendship with Val and her years of residence in the town would afford her words more weight than those of newcomers.
“Mister Mayor,” she started, “you have acknowledged the great prosperity this town had enjoyed since its people have embraced the growing beauty and complexity of their hairstyles over these many years. But I have not yet heard you express your awareness of the many ways that the hairdressers and their fellow artisans have advanced the more respectable reputations of the town—as you would have it.”
She waved a hand toward the strongwoman, whose hair was tied not in her typical two braids, but in one mighty braid.
“The methods I have used to tie Val’s braids, that I have learned here and that I have devised since becoming a resident of this town, are not frivolous or silly at all. Not to those sailors who came to learn of the knots and braids so they might better secure their rigging using our methods. Or the naturalists who studied the dyes that my fellow hairdresser, Master Sundar, uses to color hair, so they might use it to advance their own studies.”
Val touched the braid that lay over her shoulder like a sleeping serpent. “One never knows when that which is frivolous and fanciful to one person might serve to save the life of another.”
The mayor sighed heavily, his brow furrowed deeply disagreement. “You go too far, madam. I doubt the hairdressers of our town—despite their inarguable skill—have saved any lives with that skill.”
“I beg to differ, Master Mayor,” someone said from the back of the room. It was one of the very naturalists that Unaflette had mentioned.
And so it went. Back and forth. Forth and back.
The discourse remained civil, but nothing was decided. And all went to sleep dissatisfied.
And all woke believing they would return to the town hall after the day’s work, there to argue further and further, until the mayor could be convinced to strike down his first edict, or at the very least, to soften it.
But it was not to be.
It happened quickly.
The edict was printed and posted. Notices were sent to all those who had been born elsewhere and had come to reside in the town.
Before Unaflette had poured her morning tea, there was a knock upon her door. And a stern-looking woman handed her an envelope stamped with the seal of the mayor’s office. Inside was a letter addressed to her name, declaring that she must depart from the town before the stated date, one year hence.
The woman wore an unfamiliar uniform of battered brown and blue.
She was joined by dozens upon dozens of others wearing the same uniform, delivering the same message, marching and trudging through the snow-covered town.
The mayor had known his edict would be useless if he had no way to enforce it. Perhaps he had hoped that the native-born people of the town would fall in line and that those who were not native-born would shrug their shoulders and move elsewhere. He had written in exceptions for those who were not born in town but had married someone who was. Rather such folk could apply for an exception, to be reviewed and approved—or rejected—by the mayor himself.
But he was no fool. He must have also expected that the townsfolk would resist. That even those who were not native-born favored living in the town and would be loath to leave it. It seemed he had planned a way to enforce his edict.
Folk had little time to gossip about the details of the mayor’s deal with the rich family who moved their business into town, having purchased much of the town in bond. The prosperous town did not need such patronage. The mayor had only sought it to bring the family’s hired guards to town, those uniformed enforcers.
For the next few nights, Unaflette joined the well-tressed folk marching to the town hall to continue their discourse with the mayor. But all were turned back by the uniformed guards.
For the next few days, many people, even those who had never before been interested in fanciful styles, went to have their hair styled in the most extravagant fashions in protest of the unpopular edict.
Unaflette obliged all those who walked into her shop. Her fingers and her apprentices’ fingers grew cramped and raw from braiding hour after hour. Outside her window, as she worked, she watched the uniformed guards marching through the streets, wearing their hair short and unbound.
Her apprentices were excited by all the business they had done that day. But Unaflette watched the marching guards, and she wondered what was to come.
Before a month had passed, many of the newcomers and even some of those who had established themselves in town had left. When asked, they said that other towns in the region were more welcoming. It was not worth remaining in a town where they were not welcome, and where they would lose their livelihood to fines, or be thrown in prisons by the uniformed guards.
As the winter bore on, those who wore their hair in any but the simplest of braids were fined by the guards who patrolled the streets of the town day and night. They did nothing to hinder any revelry. But they also did nothing to stop any crimes. Such was still the responsibility of the town’s police. All that the uniformed guards did was watch for those who dared to display the slightest tinge of dye in their locks, the slightest sign of a swirl or a curl that did not fall naturally.
Unaflette decided to oblige by the mayor’s edict. And her business fell away, for the braids that she put in people’s hair were so simple they had no need to pay another. They could weave such braids themselves. And her apprentices left, one by one, for they had no work to do.
When the spring thaw came, she and Val would be leaving town to tour the country, as they did each year. She wondered as she lay awake at night, if she should never return from the tour. She wondered if she could leave the friends that she loved so well. She could see the Majbuts when they toured. And she could invite other friends to visit her wherever she lived. She had letters in her writing desk from friends who had moved to other towns and were doing well. Letters that entreated her to leave and join them.
When she first came to town, she thought she would stay for a while and then move on to warmer climes. She had never been able to bear the cold well.
But she had been charmed by the natural way that all the people in town spoke of and valued their hair. It had been like living in a town of hairdressers. And she had come to take it for granted that it would always be so.
There were those among the hairdressers who refused to oblige by the mayor’s edict, who resisted the guards. They asked to be fined or placed in jail by the mayor himself. They—like many in town—asked and asked to see the mayor. But since the day that the letters of the edict were delivered, the mayor would give audience to no citizen—even the native-born ones. He was seen once or twice in his office, going to and fro from his home. But he did not seem to speak to anyone.
The hairdressers who resisted, and some of those folks who dared to wear their hair in fanciful styles and colors, were indeed imprisoned. The sentences were not long. Sometimes weeks, but more often mere days, or even hours. But each subsequent offense earned a longer and longer sentence. And in a few cases, even before the year was done, there were those who were banished from town. They were made to gather what belongings they could, and taken beyond the town borders by the guards.
One night, on the verge of their tour, Unaflette had dinner with Val and her husband. She had seen little of the strongwoman in the months following the mayor’s edict, and had expected that Val must be organizing some resistance or helping those whose livelihoods were suffering because of the edict.
She expected that Val would convince her to stay in town and flout the edict. And she expected her protests to be met with assurances that Val would protect her, with her influence, and even with her muscles if need be.
But when Unaflette hesitantly mentioned the idea of not returning to town after their tour, Val merely nodded and said that she understood. Each of them must do what was best for herself and those for whom she cared.
They ate in silence for a few moments. And in that silence, something pressed upon Unaflette’s mind and swelled within her heart.
She dropped her fork beside her plate. “I cannot leave,” she said. She gazed at her friend, who met her expression with wide eyes.
Unaflette took a breath. “I cannot leave my home.”
“Then what will you do, my friend?” Val asked.
Unaflette did not know.
She did not know about edicts and laws. She did not know how to fight or protest. What she knew best was hair. What she knew best was how to tie together.
“You say you do not know,” Val said, peering at her. “But I see thoughts brewing behind your eyes.”
“If you cannot leave and you cannot stay, then what will you do?”
“I will be banished before the year is out anyway,” Unaflette said. “But I have betrayed myself and those folk who have come to me. Those folk who are braver and bolder than ever I could be. I will reopen my shop. I will recover what apprentices I can. And I will do what I came here to do.”
“Braid our hair?” Val asked, one brow quirking up.
Unaflette laughed. “Indeed, but I have an idea too. It will not change things here, I fear. But it’s been so easy to forget in such a short while, what wonders we saw every day. Even the country has forgotten, and shifted their attention to the other towns. There are only a handful of us hairdressers left now. Perhaps before I am cast out, I can help the native-born townsfolk remember that they won’t need us. They were piling their hair into fanciful shapes before any outside hairdressers stepped a single foot in town.”
Val nodded and offered her help.
So, they planned. For many weeks, they planned. But time was running short. As the last of the winter days approached, they put their plan in motion.
In only one night, Unaflette fulfilled her idea. With the help of every remaining hairdresser and apprentice, and the help of native-born townsfolk like Val, who provided the rooms and the materials they would need—the dyes, the flowers, the precious stones and glass barrettes. And most importantly of all, their hair.
Unaflette braided scents into the hair of young children that would attract the attention of the season’s first fireflies.
Into the hair of the young women and men, she braided the first of the spring flowers. She braided in twigs too, shaping some into antlers bearing flowers and leaves, and others into small trees rising atop the heads.
Into the hair of those who were of a middle and elder age, she braided white stones that were carved into the shapes of bones, to represent the bones of the town’s ancestors.
There was one group of townsfolk—comprised both of those who were born in town and those who came to it—who asked for their hair to be dyed the colors of the town. Apple-red, pumpkin-orange, and corn-yellow. The colors of their proud harvest before every harsh winter. Unaflette gave no braids to these folk. She wrapped their hair around starch-stiffened cloth and made the shapes of flickering fires.
She wove Val’s hair into two mighty braids that looped and looped around so it appeared that the strongwoman had hung coiled whips behind each ear.
Unaflette braided lock picks into the hair of one of Val’s traveling show friends, who entered the sheriff’s prison, and freed only those who had been jailed for violating the mayor’s first edict. The daring girl’s daring twin sister distracted the guards with sleight of hand tricks. Truly, the purchased army of guards had grown bored and complacent in the town that was so vibrant and colorful when they arrived and had grown more and more dismayed and dingy as they stayed.
As Unaflette worked, so did all the remaining hairdressers and all the townsfolk who followed the hairdressers’ directions. They worked for hours through the night, in secret, in the middle rooms of their homes, where their lights would not be seen and questioned by the uniformed guards who still wandered through their town, and would always wander thereafter, many feared.
Just before the first rays of dawn peaked above the mountains that rose to the east of town, trudging through the freshly fallen snow, were hundreds upon hundreds of townsfolk. They did not wear the best and most fanciful styles of hair that the town had ever known. But nothing the likes of what they bore upon their heads had been seen in the town for almost a year.
The fireflies danced about the heads of the children. The torchlight glinted from the glass baubles and barrettes braided into the hairs of the few remaining hairdressers.
They marched in silence at first. Unaflette had feared that the guards would begin to drag people away, picking at the edges of the crowd. But the stunned guards only watched the crowd. A few ran to fetch their commanders, to ask for orders. Patrolling among them had always been the town’s own police force, who were also tasked with enforcing the mayor’s edict. Most of them had been loath to do so. Perhaps they were emboldened to see their people wearing colors and shapes and beauty and strangeness in their hair. It was one of them who started to sing. It was an old song, a winter song, a song of thanks for the long, warm hair that kept them warm during the long, cold months.
The crowd picked up the song and they sang as they marched all the way to the town center, to the mayor’s office. The mayor was not there yet, but he should have been arriving when his day of governance began.
The mayor never arrived.
The guards in the battered brown and blue uniforms arrived and gathered around the crowd, waiting for their orders. People from the crowd called out to them.
“Join us,” they said. “Let us braid your hair.”
Unaflette was tired and cold. She imagined, most if not all of those who stood with her were tired and cold as well. Part of her thought she would welcome the moment when the guards dispersed them, perhaps carried some of them off to the warmth of prison for a few hours. She had prepared her things, packed her bags. She was ready for banishment.
But the guards did not disperse the crowd that day. Nor the next when many returned, and others joined in.
Day after day, they came. They marched and they sang, and they displayed their beautiful hair. Unaflette did not know what to make of it when the guards did not act, when the mayor never showed his face. Perhaps they thought the crowd would simply grow tired of their protest and return to their lives.
They were right, to a degree. The people went back to their work and their schooling and their businesses. But they continued to bear their lovely locks, their captivating coiffures, their beautiful braids.
And Unaflette re-opened her shop and fulfilled the requests of her patrons, for every kind of braid from fanciful to plain.
When the time came, when the year was done, Unaflette was indeed banished from the town she had come to love and call her home. Val begged her to remain close, and to keep in touch, for the strongwoman had her own plan. And she had many friends beyond Unaflette, powerful friends, who knew of the family who’d bought the mayor and their town.
Val did not go on tour that year. She stayed in town. She consulted with the scholars and the leaders. The mayor—whether out of shame or fear—had failed to show himself at his own office for months upon months. He had not been secreted away by the family who had bought the town and provided those guards to enforce the mayor’s edict. He lived and was well, according to the spies who Val sent to check upon him.
But as he had used an old law to declare his edict, the other leaders of the town used an equally old law to declare that the mayor had forfeited his office by refusing to serve. By refusing to come to his office, to meet with his people, to perform any of his duties within the span of three months.
His edict still stood, and the guards still remained in the town. It surprised few that this was so, for they knew the true power lay behind and beyond their now-former mayor.
Val submitted her name as mayor in the elections that would follow. She did not expect to win, but only wanted to inspire the townsfolk to choose and encourage their own candidates. And so they did. While the previous election only boasted three candidates, the current one boasted three dozen. As the list of candidates was slowly wittled down through debates and discussions in the town hall, Val used her small fortune to purchase back the town’s bonds from the family who had bought them. She told no one of this, save Unaflette. For if the townsfolk knew, they might feel beholden to the Majbuts.
One day, the guards in the battered brown and blue uniforms began to leave town. Before a month was through, most had left. Those who stayed doffed their uniforms and seemed to be growing out their hair.
A few months later, the elections were held with the townsfolk voting for one of three candidates, one of whom was Val.
Val did not win the office of mayor—at least, not that year. The new mayor declared an edict in her first week of office just as the old one had.
All who had been forced to leave the town were welcome to return. And upon their return, she would ask forgiveness on behalf of the town.
She had a second edict to declare, but that one and all others after it would require the approval of the town council. When the council and the townsfolk heard the second edict, however, all approved.
For years before the previous mayor, the town had tried to change its name to reflect its changing nature. Northtown was never meant to be the town’s name for long. But the founders needed to write something into the papers they signed to officially found the town.
The new mayor declared that in a few months’ time, the town would be known by its new name, a name that reflected its heritage and its potential. Adapted from an ancient word that roughly meant “heroic hair,” the town would be called Viraskesh.
And at that same time, when the anniversary of that week of marching arrived, the town would celebrate a new holiday, not just at the steps of the mayor’s office, but within the office, and all around the town. The mayor suggested they call this new tradition the Festival of the Heroic Hair. But while the people liked the new name for the town, they were not too keen on the name of the new holiday.
It was Val who began to call it the Festival of the Triumphant Locks, partly as a joke, because she liked the sound of it.
By the time the first festival came around, Unaflette had made her way back to town. On the day she arrived, there was a great banner flying above the main avenue. She felt the tears form in her eyes when she read what was written on the banner.
Unaflette was honored at that first festival. She had proven their old mayor wrong. She had come to the town when she was grown. She had tried to honor its laws, and when its laws seemed to stray from good sense, she had stayed and tried to honor its traditions and culture.
Unaflette still accompanied Val when the strongwoman toured the country, either alone or with a troupe, displaying the strength of her arms and the strength of her long and lustrous locks, tied into reinforced braids.
And whenever they returned, they would march back into their town and down the main avenue, so they could see the banner that was raised just for them. Unaflette never tired of reading it. And she was always touched by it. And though she knew what it said, she would always read it.
Copyright © 2018 Nila L. Patel.