The first time Tarragon Ray saw the giant Alegria, he was a baby. He was lying in his father’s arms, staring goggle-eyed up at the clouds and the big blue sky. He could hear the comforting crack of his father’s whip, and the low braying of their humpback pony as it strained against its hauliers. He could feel the joggle of their Sheckler’s wagon over the ramshackle red dust road, and the gentle motion of his father around him.
“She’s a big girl,” said his father, but Tarragon didn’t understand. He saw his father’s face leaning over him, smiling, and he smiled back. “They say, when she dances, the earth quakes for miles around.”
Tarragon made googling noises. Then he saw Alegria. He saw her hand, batting and patting at the whuffs of cloud in the sky. He thought it was his father’s hand, but when he reached out to touch it, he couldn’t. So he watched it. He watched it balling up clouds, shaping them into elephants, stringing them across the sky.
As they drew closer he watched the hand stretch up into an arm, then into a shoulder, then into a neck, and then he saw the hair.
He clapped his hands in his blankets. He wrinkled his toes like monkey feet with happiness. It was the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen. It was like the sun, a brilliant spray of golden shine effervescing around a giant weathered face.
He saw the great chain of stolen wagons and rooftops across her naked chest, braided together in bent metal and warped oak, a giant necklace barely covering her vast pendulous breasts. He watched as she moved, shingles and chocks of wood falling free, rattling down her great earthen belly, wide as the Helakios amphitheatre and tanned as brown as the dirt, to rest in the folds of her thick sailcloth skirt. He saw her vast haunches, the cliff-top buckled beneath her feet, the behemoth staff be her side.
Most of all though, he saw her hair. He watched it for as long as he could. When they passed out of sight, he cried quietly into his blanket, and didn’t know why.
Image from here.
The second time he saw her, he was a young man. He rode the same wagon and cracked the same whip over the same old donkey’s head. He watched the same sky, and he felt the road’s same red dust tingling in his eyes, tasting like rust in his mouth.
Everything was the same but for his father, who lay cold in a beech-wood coffin in the back of the Sheckling cart. Tarragon was taking him for burial in the city, because he’d requested it. A space in the Sheckler’s tomb would guarantee his family trade for another generation.
Everything Tarragon saw was tinged with sadness. The sky was open and empty and seemed ready to swallow him complete. He’d never felt more alone in all his life. Then he saw the elephant-shaped clouds, and clouds shaped like pigs, and cows, and even humans, and he remembered the crazy tales his father had once told, of giants and monsters and far-away wars, and he wondered if some of them were true.
Then he saw Alegria. The sun was setting behind her head, and for a moment he thought her dizzying golden hair was the fiery trail of some celestial chariot, come for his father, and he felt happy and secure again for the first time in years.
Then he saw the rest of her. He drew closer. He saw again the necklace of old roofs and tin wagons. He saw again the white sail-cloth skirt and the great brown belly. But most of all, he saw her hair, flaming in the wind, lilting with the dance of light and shadow across her face, the brilliant golden glow eclipsing everything else. He stared and he stared until the giant was gone and only fine after-images of her tendrils of hair remained.
The third time he saw her he was an ambitious young journeyman, on his way to Helakios to study barbering at the King’s Royal Institute. It was night, and he could only make out the shadow of her figure against the stars.
As he rode by she called down to him. Her voice was like soft thunder rolling over him, shuddering like the shivering rush of an outgoing tide.
“I’m alone,” she said. “I’m all alone.”
Tarragon felt the earth shaking, and for some reason thought of dancing. A moment a wave of water drenched his wagon, and he knew she wasn’t dancing. She was crying.
“You’re not alone,” he called up to her. “I’m here.”
“But nobody stays,” she said, an infinite, timeless sadness in her voice. “You won’t stay.”
“Why don’t you leave then?” he asked. “Make friends somewhere else.”
She sobbed. The wave of sound hit Tarragon like a belt across the face. “I can’t move. The weight of my hair holds me down.”
“So cut it,” called Tarragon. “Then you’ll be free.”
“I try,” she said, then let out a racking sob. Tarragon was thrown from the wagon by the wave of sound. “But I can’t. It would take 100 men with 1000 saws weeks to cut this hair. And nobody will help me. It’s a curse.”
“Ahh,” said Tarragon, then added, “I’m very sorry.”
“It’s OK,” said the giant voice, floating down from above, “I’m used to it.”
“Good-bye then,” called out Tarragon, as the wagon led him away. He felt a sudden loneliness steal over him, but he didn’t know why. “Good-bye.”
On the wind, he heard her faint answer. “I used to love to dance,” she said. “Would you dance with me, if I could?”
Tarragon opened his mouth, but he didn’t know what answer to give. Soon the wind rushed in to fill out the distance, and he knew she wouldn’t hear him, even if he answered.
It was 6 years later that Tarragon became official barber to the hair of the king of Helakios. In that time he’d worked his way up the barbershop ziggurat, starting off with the lowly dock rats who paid him in lice and cauliflower ears for his trouble, moving up to the scum merchants who catered to the Outriders, all greasy locks uncut for years, and from there to the working girls of the Scallazen prefect, trimming both their upper and their under-curls, neither of which he much enjoyed, being a barber of refined and exquisite taste. They’d told him at the King’s Royal Institute (KRT) in his hometown of Seraphston that not all hair-barbery was pleasurable nor was all the gossip edifying to hear; but none of it prepared him for cutting the under-curls of the town’s cheapest madams. The sheer number of curls overwhelmed him, each one an assayation so difficult he often spent nightmarish hours reliving the experiences, attempting to extrapolate the optimum manner of both speed and perfection.
Thusly he improved his craft.
The madam’s spoke to their clientele and soon he was trimming the beards of the city’s janitors, sweeping the dust from their overlong taches and teasing out the thorn-locked tangles of their crest-hair. He dallied briefly with the underground ascetic movement, but found the gossip and the stench of blue-root juice too overpowering to stomach. This earned him notice at the courts of various minor criminals, all itching for a status symbol over the fat-headed ascetics who seemed to have inherited the best of their forbears money but the least of their intelligence. He moonlighted with one set while informing for the other, and so his usefulness to the Outrider class became clear, when they announced their plans to buy out the criminal contingent completely and move them from the city, lumped and whole, and deposit them fairly and squarely in the sea by sequester of the King.
Thanks to Tarragon the plans went ahead and the core proponents of Helakios’ crime wave were decimated by the Outrider coup. And so, the Outriders in turn passed his name higher up the chain of command.
In the 39 and a half day war against his hometown of Seraphston, in which 24 dogs were injured and one accidentally stepped on, he brought hostilities to a halt when he cut the hair of both commanding armies’ generals, surreptitiously and under guise of a trading Sheckler, then presented the totems to either side as a gift of the other’s peaceful intent. There was nought for it after that but for them to surrender gladly, and as each to the other did so, the war was over, although one dog unfortunately was stepped on.
From thence his lights came to the attention of the King, who soon made him Barber Royale. And so it came to pass one fine summer morning, with the chrysanthemums blooming from their twined ironwood branches, as they sat in the triangle garden and Tarragon snipped between the blades of the King’s omnipresent crown, that the King said this to Feragon:
“I truly require a strong rope.”
“Your majesty surely knows his mind best on this matter,” said Tarragon, as he so often did, having learnt the courtly ways from first the madams and then through extensive study of the particulars of obfuscation, or the art of non-saying as it was known back in Seraphston.
“Yes I do,” said the King, “I rather do, but in this case, it wasn’t actually my idea.”
“The ideas of others are often a most charming though fickle thing,” said Tarragon, using the gift of presenting two disparate opinions simultaneously, though seemingly of the same ilk.
“Yes,” said the King, then, after a moment’s thought, “what?”
“Charming though fickle,” Tarragon repeated with more confidence than he felt.
The King seemed to think about this a moment longer. His crown juddered as he thought, as thinking involved chattering his teeth together very quickly. For cutting at this stage, Tarragon often pretended to, with a few light snips in the air above the King’s head. He didn’t want the Kings shuddering to off-put his deft barbery.
“Yes,” said the King finally. “You’re quite right. Fickle and charming. But listen here. That doesn’t remove the base need. Ropes, man. I need the strongest ropes a man can make.”
“That sounds very foresighted but also grounded in today’s pressing needs, lord,” said Tarragon.
“Yes,” nodded the King. Snip snip went the scissors above his head. “You’re quite right. I am foresighted, but also grounded.”
“But I need ropes. Giant ropes to pull my siege engines to the castle Brick.”
A light went on in Tarragon’s head.
“Giant ropes?” he asked.
“Must you repeat everything I say?” said the King.
“Sir, I may, or may not, have the very answer to the question myself.”
“May not? What question?”
“And then again sir, I may.”
The very next day Tarragon set off down the red dust trail back to Seraphston, with 100 men at his back, carrying hammocks slung with 1000 fresh logging blades and provisions for seven days. Alegria saw them coming and covered her eyes so they could not see her shame.
“Hello Alegria,” called up Feragon. “Do you remember me?”
She shrouded herself in her hair and turned to look up at the sky.
“Very well,” said Tarragon, and proceeded to organize the men. First they slung up the shanty town around her, a tent village pinioned from her sail cloth skirt and anchored in the rock about her squatting feet. Some of the men stood close to her white-whale thighs and pointed up at her massive mounded breasts, scarcely covered over by the increasingly threadbare necklace of carts and other crafts. They laughed. Alegria stifled tears and prodded at the clouds.
Tarragon tried to explain to her that they’d be cutting her hair. He told her she’d once told him he’d need 100 men and 1000 saw blades and enough food for a week to free her of her hair, and now he had brought them. She only felt she was being mocked though, as the men around Tarragon laughed and jeered, and she stared up at the sky.
So he began. The first day they staked down her hair. They used mallets to drive metal hoops round each individual hair, a hundred in total. The hairs lay streamed out behind her like golden rays of light. Tarragon was amazed at how smooth her hair was. He’d expected it to be rough and brittle, full of insects and vermin, but it wasn’t. It shone like gold but it was supple and smooth as oil.
He gave instructions in the morning. He didn’t know any more about cutting giant hair than they did, but still he told them what he thought should be done.
“Cut diagonally,” he told them. “Use your saw blade until you find the grain of the hair. Cut in slices and take a rest. Drink a lot of water. Don’t look up.”
“Won’t we be cutting in zigzags?” asked the men.
“Why shouldn’t we look up?” they asked.
“What do you mean, slices?”
Tarragon shook his head firmly. “I’m in charge here,” he said, “now do what I say.”
And so, they did.
Each hair took one man a day to cut, his sweat dripping into the ground, his hands raw and blistered from the saw handle, the hair resilient and slippery smooth beneath his blade.
“There is no grain in this hair!” moaned the men. “It’s like trying to cut a madams heart- it doesn’t make a dent!”
But they managed. And every day the hairs were coiled and strapped and put in leather bags, spread behind the donkey sleds, and sent back to the city and the King, where he would begin the factory processing plans Tarragon had left behind.
They cut for seven days solid, every day all day. Alegria spoke not once. Tarragon called up to her several times, to ask if she felt lighter, if the weight of hair was reducing any. She ignored him and fluffed with the clouds.
A strange thing began to happen after the week was out. Only Tarragon seemed to notice at first, and it worried him. He felt it in the circumference of the hairs, the ones they cut and the ones they packed. He felt it in the tremors her slight movements made in the earth beneath his feet, and the wind caused by her breathing.
The strange thing was, she appeared to be getting smaller. He didn’t say a word though.
After the week was up he set back to Helakios and worked on the factory, where they fed the hairs through circular saws and strimmed them down to a manageable size. They were braided or knotted and affixed with hooks, and the King took him down to the war machines depot where he saw siege engines, great towers scaled with cat’s teeth, crossbows as wide as a the city gates and wound with the ligaments of dead newts, acid fused. He saw catapults with great drawbridge winches, firebombs mixed with the sulphur and freote from the Ashacanti volcano. He saw the King’s plans in large, and he wondered, what had the opposing King of castle Brick ever done to deserve such an onslaught?
But he didn’t worry much. His ropes were the key to the haulage of such heavy material, and he had no intention of letting the King down. Most of all though, as he thought on the problem of the hair, he thought about Alegria. It was her hair, after all. And he wondered if she really had been getting smaller. Did he imagine it? Or was it just stress?
He lost a batch of hair. He did it on purpose. It wasn’t easy to lose. He had to sneak into the factory at night and cart out the hairs one by weighty one. He buried them all over the east Morengia woods. Then the next day he reported the theft. He explained how they would need more hair, and so had to go back. The King agreed, so back the 100 and Tarragon went.
He ordered the workers to up the pace. He wasn’t certain about her changing size until strange reports started to come from the men. They were finding the iron hoops they had were too big to hold the hairs steady. They found the hairs they cut were easier, and they could finish one and a half every day, then soon one and three quarters. They found the hairs getting shorter. Every day the hairs they had were thinner.
He explained to the men. “Of course they’re thinner. I picked the fatter ones first because they were the best. So now they’re thinner. It’s very clear to me.”
But he wasn’t sure.
He went back over the older hairs, and he compared them to the newer hairs. He measured their lengths and their widths and when the men asked him what he was doing he said: “Quality checking.”
What he found was poor quality. The hairs were shrinking. All the hairs were shrinking.
He paused the hair-cutting the next day, and he left the men behind and returned to the city. Alegria actually said goodbye as he left, which were the first words she’d granted him that whole occasion.
In the city Tarragon inveigled himself back into the war room. He saw the new machines the King had ordered constructed using the giant’s impervious hairs. He found spiked discus hurlers wound with slices of the golden hair. When he tried to operate them though, they were jammed. He found drill bits studded with the wispy stubs of golden hair, slack in their bindings and drifting to the floor. He found swords with blades of hair, he found the great weaved haulage ropes, now just messy tangles lying in the dirt.
“You with appraisals?” came a voice from behind him. Tarragon turned and beheld a stocky bald red-faced man, wearing a vest that seemed to be woven of hair, which had shrunk all the way up to the neck.
“Yes I am,” he said firmly.
“Where’s your badge then?” asked the man, flicking at his chest. Tarragon knew the best form of defense was a strong offense, so went directly to work on it.
“Badge?” he scoffed, thrusting the man’s hand away and reaching out to the shrunken vest. “I don’t need a badge to tell me this is hardly up to scratch, is it? What were you thinking when you made this? Is this for babies in combat? Whatever will the King say about this bib?”
The man backed up and nearly tripped. “I explained all this already,” he spluttered, “how can I help it if the bloody hairs shrink when I work them? How can I help that? Witchcraft it is, and no mistake, and not my doing.”
Tarragon gulped. “Witchcraft? I think not. Witchcraft with hair? Whoever heard the like! Clearly this is your malfunction, this is your error in manufacturing.”
“Oh I see,” asked the man, his face turning even redder. “And I suppose the flail’s my fault too?” he demanded, pointing at a lack-lustre cracked cat of nine tails hanging from a hook on the wall. “It doesn’t even crack anymore because the bindings are done in- your precious hair that is, and you’ll blame me?”
“It must have been the glue you used,” said Tarragon.
“There’s no bloody glue!” stormed the man, now crimson-faced. “It’s all tying isn’t it? And now the hair shrunk and it’s useless!”
“Well,” said Tarragon.
“And what about the helmet? Bonze made one, got his gran to knit it for him, and because he’s an odd bloke he slept with it on- and when he woke, it was digging into his skin and there’s marks still on his head where it shrunk about and cut in like cheese wire.”
“Well, that can easily be explained,” began Tarragon, but the man cut him off.
“And you know how many bows we strung with that stuff? How much prime Alpinese rowan bush we had to import to make all them ivory inlaid bows that we strung with that hair? 5 hundred! And you know what? All of them snapped clean through, the hair just pulled them to pieces. And don’t get me started on the underwear Bonze’s gran was knitting for all of us! I wasn’t wearing it at the time but I tell you, it took more than a quick pruning with scissors to have it off. 5 blokes! 5 blokes underneath a vice-clamp with hacksaws next to their down nethers, and I was on cutting duty for half of em! It ain’t right.”
“Well, perhaps,” began Tarragon timidly.
“It’s witchcraft, I tell you!” stormed the man, sighed in disgust at Tarragon’s babbling, and walked away.
Tarragon fled the city. He went back to Alegria and he woke the men and he urged them to double production. He’d never seen hair of the sort before. He was fascinated. He was sucked in. He couldn’t stop himself from pacing the lines and chattering incessantly at the men to go faster, work faster, cut more.
It was a kind of magic to watch the hairs shrink.
They worked through the night. By morning the threads were a quarter as thick as they first were and could be cut in an hour. By midday they were an eighth and it only took 10 minutes. By half past three it was a minute a hair.
And then it dawned on the workers.
This was just hair.
Tarragon sent them all back to the city, and he finished the cut on Alegria himself. She was no longer a giant. Her hair streamed only a few feet from her back. The necklace of carts and rooftops rested on the sailcloth on the ground around her, her naked in the middle, confused, silent, watching.
Tarragon took out his scissors and with the sun high in the sky and all shadows burnt to nothing, he finished the job himself.
Alegria stepped out from the wreckage. Her body was normal. She was quite beautiful.
“Alegria,” said Tarragon, because it was the only sound he could think of.
“I feel so strange,” said the new Alegria, her voice luxurious, like her deep brown stomach, smoothing down into limber brown legs, up into the full breasts the men had once laughed at as ‘mammary hills’. She reached out to touch Tarragon’s face.
“It’s a big change for you,” said Tarragon, unsure what else to say.
She stepped towards him.
“I remember when you were just a baby,” she said. “Laughing at my clouds as you went by. I made elephants for you.”
Tarragon felt tears pricking at his eyes at the sudden memory of his father.
“Don’t cry now,” she said, stepping so close he could feel the heat off her naked body. She smoothed her soft brown hands over his cheeks, the tears shedding onto her skin.
She stared at the silvery drops on her fingers.
“Your father died,” she said. “My father died too.”
Tarragon took her hand.
“We cannot stay here, Alegria. The King will come for us. All of his weapons have been destroyed by your hair, he’ll try us for witchcraft and kill us both.”
“Shh,” said Alegria calmly, resting a palm over his thumping heart, looking into his eyes. “What is your name?”
“My name? It is Tarragon. Please, we must leave.”
“Shhh,” she said again. “Tarragon, will you dance with me? It has been such a long time since I danced, and I do love it so.”
She laughed, a sweet golden sound.
“There’s more ways to dance than you could possibly imagine, my dear,” she said, and took his hand. “Now, please come with me.”
She took a step, and disappeared. His hand went with her.
“Alegria!” he called, suddenly filled with the fear that he’d already lost her, she was already gone. There was no answer, though he felt sure he could still feel her hand holding his.
He looked around the deserted hilltop but there was nothing to see, only hair everywhere, human-sized and shredded. The great white sail whipped noisily in the wind. The cogs and wheels and slates of her old necklace lay uselessly on the top. In the distance, he could make out a plume of red dust splayed up from approaching riders, he guessed the King’s mounts, no doubt coming to find him and try him for witchcraft.
He looked back to his hand, but it was still invisible, hidden halfway behind whatever veil Alegria had cloaked herself in. He still felt her palm wrapped around his, the warmth from it, a sense of invisible connection.
Then he smiled. There were worse things, after all, weren’t there? He didn’t leave himself time to answer that question. He stepped after her, and disappeared.
When the King arrived, his riders in tow, he didn’t know quite what to do. They stood on the hill-top for a long time, looking out longingly at the castle Brick on the horizon and shuffling their feet.
Eventually, the King sighed, remounted his horse, then set off back to his castle, muttering something about fickle barbers.
That night there was a storm over Helakios. Thunder rolled in from the plains, and a bolt of lightning dashed through the Royal Dome and blasted the king in the head, stripping away his hair and leaving him bald with the crown fused to his skull. The hair would never grow back.
The storm abated soon after. Ferragon and Alegria danced on.
You can see all MJG’s stories here:[album id=6 template=compact]