c1997 Airweaver

Ding, ding, ding! The dawn quiet was broken by Lucy, the Mercia’s faithful housemaid, coming down the hall ringing her insistent wake-up bell. Fanny awoke to another day. Her final day of school, she reminded herself, as she opened her sleep-filled eyes and adjusted the two lengthy plaits that snaked down the outside of her covers. Today she would graduate from the Wainwright Seminary, Class of 1887, Mercia Guild Division.

The Seminary boasted the most modern indoor plumbing, so early-morning ablutions were attended to quickly, after which Fanny and Belle set about the familiar task of preparing their hair for the coming day. As best friends and roommates, they had helped one another with this time-honored ritual for years. They began by removing the soft cotton bands that held their long over-night braids in place and proceeded to unwind the glossy strands, twist by twist, until they both stood engulfed in vast accumulations of loose, flowing hair, contrasting floods of black and chestnut. The next step was to brush it out the required one-hundred strokes until it was all satin-smooth. Belle found Fanny’s assistance at this stage extremely useful, since the sheer length and volume of her hair made it unwieldy and somewhat difficult to manage. Fanny never ceased to be amazed by the length and vitality of Belle’s hair. The first time she’d met her -- it must have been back in ‘81, during her first week at Wainwright -- Fanny had been impressed by those two sleek pigtails that, even then, came practically to the ground, and the Mercia Guild’s constant nurturing in the ensuing years had done nothing to discourage its further development. Now it spilled onto the floor in a dense, shimmering torrent, dark as a raven’s wing, and a good seven feet long. With practiced hands, Fanny passed the brush through the thick, swaying curtain until it began to shine like black-velvet in the morning sun. Then Belle climbed up on the little night stand they used so Fanny could finish off the bottom portion. Soon these pleasant chores would be assumed by Belle’s young fiancee, for she was to be married straight from the schoolroom. The very thought brought a gleam of happiness to Belle’s eyes. After the full length of Belle’s hair had been brushed to a luminous sheen, she scooped the entire mass up over the top of her head and began to erect the luxuriant pile she wore daily like a crown. A twist here, a pin there, and Belle was ready to face graduation day.

Then it was Belle’s turn to assist Fanny with her own remarkable tresses. While it had never been as long as Belle’s profuse mane, Fanny’s hair was still an impressive sight, and had received the same close attention over the years. Now it fell in a rich, chestnut cascade exactly six feet, two inches in length -- Mr. Hardcastle had measured it only the week before -- and formed a small pool of soft silk beneath her slippered feet. It was easy to brush, too, since it was smooth as satin and every strand seemed to fall into perfect alignment. As she proceeded to brush out the chestnut lengths, Belle couldn’t help noticing how particularly nice it looked this morning and felt compelled to comment. "Fanny, I’ve never seen your hair looking lovelier!" And so it did. Fanny had been treating it with extra care the past several months, and it showed.

As Belle set about her comforting task, Fanny turned suddenly pensive, as she always found herself doing of late this time of day. There were no thoughts of young fiancees on her mind -- indeed, there wasn’t a man in her foreseeable future. No, Fanny’s thoughts returned yet again to her younger sister Susie, whom consumption had taken from them only the summer before after a single year at Wainwright. Poor, sweet Susie, who excelled at the piano and guitar (talents Fanny could only dream of). Susie, whose magnificent wavy hair had made her an instant candidate for the Mercia Guild.

After Susie’s death, Fanny had found her own carefully nurtured hair suddenly meaningless. What did it matter if it had developed beyond her wildest dreams? What if six years of pampering and careful attention had turned it into a silken treasure? Death had robbed it of satisfaction. Then Fanny slowly began to realize that her tresses could serve a purpose: she would turn them into a memorial to her dear, departed sister. Hadn’t Susie always looked upon Fanny as her guiding light? Hadn’t she welcomed Fanny home each vacation with open arms, and first thing exclaim how much longer and spectacular her hair had become? Hadn’t it been Fanny’s hair that inspired Susie to attend Wainwright, so hers could receive the same kind of lavish attention?

Fanny had announced her plan to her parents and received their blessing, telling them her hair would become a living shrine to her deceased sister. She promised herself that she would do everything possible to coax from it its last ounce of potential. She would take as her criteria the Mercia definition of beautiful hair. "Beautiful hair," it is somewhere written in the Mercia Guild rules, "is long, abundant, and lustrous." To these ends, Fanny set herself with increased determination, and, as if knowing what was expected of it, her hair had responded with renewed vigor. Mr. Hardcastle had been amazed. Nowhere in the records left him by his predecessor, Dr. Wurm, had there been any hint that Fanny Stephenson’s hair would do any more than grow at a steady but unremarkable rate. Under the headings 'abundance' and 'lustre' no comment was made other than 'satisfactory.' Yet it grew a full three inches that tri-term and took on an unexpected radiance. Fanny’s hair was well on its way to becoming exceptional, even by Wainwright standards.

With graduation over, Fanny and her family headed back to New Haven and an uncertain future. How empty the house seemed those first few days without Susie’s cheerful presence! To help fill the void, Mrs. Stephenson throw herself with unbounded energy into laying plans for Fanny’s coming out party to be held that autumn. For every eligible Victorian maiden requires launching in polite society. (A later and more outspoken age would say she "needed to be married off.")

Fanny’s mother took over the task of helping Fanny tend her beautiful hair, just as she had done in years past. For as long as Mrs. Stephenson could remember, her pride and joy had been the luxuriant hair of her two daughters. It was her main reason for choosing Wainwright for them both in the first place, and the glory of Fanny’s hair had far exceeded her expectations.

Every time she come home from school, she had commented, just as Susie had done, on how truly magnificent it was becoming, each day longer, fuller, ever more beautiful. Now, with Susie gone, she looked forward to that time each day they worked together on her remaining daughter’s spectacular hair. She gathered all the information Wainwright could provide on its proper maintenance, and wired Mr. Hardcastle more than once for more specific instructions. So it continued to develop in superlative condition.

Then one morning, while her mother was brushing out the wonderful treasure, Fanny heard her mother say something she never expected to hear. "Fanny, I think it’s time we cut some of this back." Fanny was not so much shocked as she was surprised. She thought her mother shared her ambition to coax her hair to its ultimate length and abundance. If not for their own sakes, then for Susie’s. She though her mother realized that her hair was not so much her own as it was Susie’s and reminded her of her vow. "Oh, it isn’t your hair or the work involved I’m thinking of," her mother replied. "it’s other things you’re still too young to properly appreciate."

It took a long time for the truth to come out, and, when it did, Fanny learned it, not from her mother, but from her younger brother, Jim. Jim was best friends with an even-tempered fellow named Andrew Harding. Andy was totally welcome in the Stephenson household and never a problem. The problem lay with Andy’s older brother, Jason, who had been to the Stephenson’s house a few times and was currently enrolled at Yale. Janon apparently had been going around telling anyone who would listen that he knew someone who had the longest, most to-die-for hair in the known universe. As Jim heard it from Andy, Jason Harding had promised to tell his college chums all about it the next time he returned from a visit home.

This story had put the fear of God into Mrs. Stephenson, who was not about to have her daughter involved in a scandal with a mere college boy. After all, her husband sat on the Board of Trade. Since the story focused on the exceptional length of Fanny’s hair, something must be done about it. It was being talked about and needed to be cut to a more prudent length. From Mrs. Stephenson’s standpoint, women were expected to have long hair, but hair longer than knee-length was unusual, no doubt about it. No wonder Fanny was becoming the subject of gossip with that excessive mane of hers that actually trailed on the floor! Very well, then, Fanny’s hair would be cut back to her knees. It would still be long, beautiful hair and would still serve Susie’s memory. Only it would now be respectable, and perhaps those Yale men would stop talking about it. Anyway, no one would probably notice the difference.

Mrs. Stephenson’s decision caused consternation in the household. Fanny was distraught. All those years in the Mercia Guild had taught her that her hair was more than simply a female adornment, but an achievement of the highest order. As a pianist tries to perfect his craft and become an artist, so she was expected to care for her hair, which, she had to admit to herself, was rapidly approaching a state of perfection. "But that’s just the point, Fanny," her mother had tried to reason with her. "Women aren’t meant to be artists. That’s an activity for men, and artists are common."

The debate went on, as preparations for Fanny’s coming-out party intensified. The ball was to be held in New York’s famous Astoria Hotel. Even the Governor was to be there, for the Stephensons were important members of the Connecticut establishment. Fanny lived on continual tenterhooks, although it wasn’t the ball that was making her anxious. Every day, while her mother was working on her hair, Fanny expected to receive word regarding the threatened haircut. But, after a week or so, her mother drew surprisingly silent on the matter. As the silence continued, Fanny began to hope her mother might have forgotten, or perhaps even changed her mind, since over the summer, Fanny’s hair became increasingly spectacular and reached a length of six and a half feet. Yes, that was it! Her mother couldn’t bear to part with that wonderful achievement any more than she could. And she was not about to bring up the subject.

The day of the big event was rapidly approaching. Upon it rode Fanny’s entire future, for there, in the rarefied atmosphere that was New York Society, would undoubtedly be found the man she would marry. The morning post was filled of letters bearing New York postmarks. Everything from invitations being accepted to queries regarding the flowers. Then one day a letter arrived that Mr. Stephenson had pondered over. "Here, Elsie, you’d better look at this." Fanny and Jim cast their mother a quisitive eye as she read the letter through once, twice, yet a third time. Even Maude, their serving girl, looked curious. "That’s it!" Mrs. Stephenson throw down the letter and looked straight at Fanny. "I will have no further argument. We have put this off long enough. I shall call Hector directly after breakfast." Fanny was crestfallen. She knew who Hector was: New Haven’s foremost hairdresser, and it could mean only one thing. He was being summoned to cut her hair. Almost by reflex she reached up and touched her crowning glory securely mounded in its massive bun above her head. It felt so reassuring; over six feet of almost perfect hair nested there.

"Might I read the letter, Mother?" Fanny’s voice sounded like a stranger to her ears. Mrs. Stephenson passed the letter to her daughter without a word, and she read. At the top was a letterhead reading 'New York Post.' "One of the inferior papers," Mrs. Stephenson snorted. The letter turned out to be a request. "We have learned that your charming daughter is shortly to become a debutante in the City. We are also informed that she is uniquely endowed. It is our desire to introduce ourselves to you, and request a photographic interview at your earliest convenience."

Silence filled the room, until Mr. Stephenson spoke. "You’d better do as your mother requires."

Fanny woke early the next morning and lay in bed thinking. She gazed thoughtfully at her hair, two twin braids that stretched the entire length of the counterpane. Her eyes followed the sleek ripples, the morning light highlighting their polished surfaces. She could just see the pair of small white bows securing their tips. She had awaitied the day her hair got so long those ribbons would disappear from sight over the foot of the bed. That day apparently would never come now, for Mr. Hector was due in a matter of hours. Wainwright had taught her that hair was never cut except to stimulate its growth, but that clearly wasn’t what her mother intended. It seemed such a pity to cut it now, just when she had worked so hard to develop it to this point. Her goal was practically in sight. Susie’s wish almost fulfilled. She wanted to write Belle for consolation, but Belle was in Europe on the Grand Tour and unavailable. She picked up one of her supple plaits and stroked it gently. How long and rewarding it had become! She wrapped it several times around her arm. How soft and comforting it felt beneath her loving touch. Then her mother arrived, and they proceeded to dress Fanny’s extraordinary hair as if this day was like any other.

Hector, New Haven’s premier hairdresser, arrived promptly at 11:00. Mrs. Stephenson was attempting to be reassuring; Fanny was trying to be philosophical. "After all, they’ll only cut a little bit. My hair will still be long, down to my knees. But is this what Susie would have wanted? Certainly not! And for her I morn."

Hector entered, brimming with bon amie. When Fanny’s hair was released before his astonished eyes, he let out a gasp. "Sacre coeure, c’est magnifique," he stammered. Fanny stood on the library table and shut her eyes. Her hair trailed down in a vast cloud, not a hair out of place, not a single broken strand; a liquid image of perfection -- Susie’s memorial.

Hector scratched his head in bewilderment and prepared for work. "I have plied my craft for thirty years, but never have I seen such hair as this. I assure you that, if I do as you request, it well only add to its eventual triumph."

Mr. Hector applied his craft with utmost skill. He saw the hair of Connecticut’s most admired women on a daily basis, but his eyes told him he had never encountered anything like this. He was familiar with Wainwright and knew he had a reputation to uphold. So splendid, so full and abundant, of such exceptional length! It was beyond his comprehension. Even standing on the library table, her hair tumbled almost to the floor in a great, flowing curtain. The ends were full, a straight and symmetrical line. Hector’s practiced eye marked a spot just even with Fanny’s knees, and he made sure his impression was clean and even. The scissors did their work, and more than two feet of Fanny’s magnificent hair was carefully gathered up and bound as a souvenir. As Fanny rebound her hair, she could feel the difference. She wept a silent tear. Her accomplishment had been undermined.

Fanny made a spectacular debut in New York Society, and in the following weeks, many eligible suitors came making their entreaties for her hand. Among them was Jason Harding from Yale. How he longed to lay his eyes on the fabled Fanny. If Jim had it right, her hair was a living dream, well past the floor -- for he had not known of Hector’s visit. But, alas, Jason was turned away at the door. Percy stood a much better chance. He expressed no interest in Fanny’s hair, and his father was a Rhode Island congressman.

Stanton was something else entirely. Handsome, perfectly acceptable (his father was a vice president of the Boston & Maine Railroad), and charming beyond words. The minute he laid eyes on Fanny, he was smitten. What was it about her? Her eyes? Her mouth? Charming, certainly. Her manners? Undoubtedly, she had breeding and character. It was only later, three days after he first came calling, that late one night he recalled the rich accumulation of hair piled above her dainty head. Yes, that was it! How it had gleamed in creamy profusion! Yes, Fanny had truly lovely hair. He knew nothing of its history.

Stanton Upshaw and Fanny Stephenson were joined in the bonds of Holy Matrimony on the 14th of June, 1891. They honeymooned in New Hampshire at a charming small resort owned by his father’s railroad. Stanton was deeply in love. He found his new wife a jewel. That first night, when she let her hair down, he was in awe. Stanton had read in the papers somewhere his bride described has having beautiful hair, but nothing had prepared him for the actual sight. It was pure heaven! Unbelievably thick and lustrous, it fell full to her knees in a smooth, shimmering mass of utter loveliness. The light reflected its radiance and vigor. It seemed alive with vitality. Surely, this was hair that had been carefully nurtured. Stanton hadn’t thought much about hair before; now it became the focus of his attention.

Slowly over the ensuing days Stanton learned the story behind Fanny’s wonderful hair. He learned of Susie and Wainwright and the Mercia Guild. He learned that her hair had once been a good deal longer and of how, since the fateful haircut, her tresses had seemed to react with even greater vitality, just as Mr. Hector had hinted. Stanton couldn’t believe his good fortune. To look at such a prize and realize what the two of them might achieve with it to their mutual pleasure.

"Promise me one thing, Fanny. Promise me that you will never, ever allow your hair to be cut like that again. In return, I promise I will become its devoted slave. That I will serve it night and day. Together we will make it into a memorial that would make Susie truly proud."

There is not much more to report. As the years past and the marriage of Fanny and Stanton ripened, her hair regained its former splendor and even surpassed it. Stanton was as good as his word and served Fanny as faithfully as Belle had ever done. Fanny heard from some of her old Wainwright companions from time to time. Louise went into nursing and was required to cut her hair as dictated by the profession. Helen, whom Fanny served as a big sister, bobbed her red hair and went into the theater. Belle fell victim to the diphtheria epidemic of ‘97, and her hair was reduced to a shadow of its former glory. Belle’s daughter, however, has the fastest-growing hair anyone could ever remember and, if Wainwright still existed -- which it doesn’t, having closed its doors in 1895 -- would have been a certainty for the Mercia Guild.

That leaves Fanny, class of 1887, now a wife and mother, and the talk of the town. Some people say that when she lets down that crowning glory of hers it actually measures over eight feet in length!

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