By Kennice Leisk
Even though she turned sixteen five months ago, Aurelia’s mom still hasn’t taken her to get her license. Every time they schedule a day for her mom to take her, something always comes up—“Liza needs me to cover her client,” “I have a last minute client,” or “Your dad said he can’t pick up Aaron from practice, I have to go get him.” Auri’s mom, Jane, always jumps at every client she can take. Jane’s a hairdresser, but call her that to her face and you’ll get an offended glare. Jane prefers the term beautician and bristles when people, especially her daughter or husband, don’t refer to her occupation with the title that communicates the special schooling she underwent for it.
Auri has always thought her mom’s insistence on being called a beautician has the opposite effect she wants it to. Rather than make her seem more professional, it makes her mom seem more pathetic, makes it much too obvious to her clients and family that she’s not proud of her lot in life. When Auri was little, she used to be embarrassed of her mom’s job, especially on Bring Your Parent to School Day when Jane showed up in a black apron with combs and scissors peeking out of her pockets while all the other moms wore slick black slacks or pencil skirts and brandished Blackberries. But when Auri got to high school, she began to see the advantages of her mom’s job, even began bragging about it.
Auri has always had pretty hair. She popped out of the womb with thick golden curls that prompted her name, Aurelia, or golden one. As a child, her mom loved giving her pigtails, braids, and generally using Auri as her own personal Barbie doll. When Auri became a freshman in high school, she finally convinced her mom to let her do her own hair, appeasing Jane’s protests by promising that she would still use the latest products from the salon. Auri had arrived on her first day of high school with curls straight out of a Pantene commercial and had never heard so many compliments in her life. Girls in her classes started their small talk with “OMG, I love your hair!” or “What product do you use?” Auri simply flashed a dazzling smile and said smugly, “Oh, just the products my mom gives me, she’s a beautician and gives me free samples.”
Today, the last day before spring break, Auri practically skips to school, her golden curls—extra voluminous thanks to the new curler she tried out this morning—bouncing with her movement. Auri grins despite the thick humidity that threatens to flatten the styling she spent two hours perfecting. She can’t wait to hear all the other girls’ “oohs and aahs,” can’t wait for history class where her seat next to the windows will make her hair glow in the morning light, the perfect angle for floppy-haired Conor—her current crush—to admire her from.
Like always, Auri’s walk to school, there and back, takes her past Ms. Bradley’s porch where the old woman sits, head bent, mumbling beneath her breath, knitting. Usually, Ms. Bradley is so focused not even a car accident can break her concentration. But today, when Auri comes strolling along, she catches the old woman’s eyes lingering upon her like a moth to a flame. Auri slows. From her position on the sidewalk, she can see that even though Ms. Bradley is looking up, her hands still move methodically across her row of stitches. Auri’s lips spread into a tentative smile and she nods, directing her gaze to her shoes and quickening her pace.
Much to Auri’s dismay, Conor decided to begin spring break early and was not waiting to stare dreamily at her when she got to history. She sat through a boring lecture about WWI with her eyes slipping shut every few minutes, the cost of waking up early to do her hair. Her miserable mood finally lifted when she arrived in the cafeteria and was flagged down by Casey Collier, objectively the prettiest and most popular girl at their school. Auri had been trying since freshman year to win a seat at Casey’s table.
Now, Auri tries to remain cool as she strides over to Casey’s table.
“Auri!” Casey calls her name like they have been friends for years. “What took you so long?”
Casey proceeds to raise an eyebrow challengingly at the girl sitting beside her. She smirks when the girl packs her things and moves to a seat farther down the table. Casey pats the newly open seat. “Sit here!”
Auri hurries over trying to suppress a smile. The other girls at the table stare at her like she’s a unicorn. It’s not everyday that Casey Collier makes room for someone.
“I’m dying to know, Auri! How’d you get such cute curls?”
Auri tucks her hair behind her ear. “What these?” She holds up a few curls in her palm, making sure they catch the light streaming through the large windows behind them. “Oh, just this new curler my mom gave me.”
Another girl sitting across from Auri with short, jet-black hair cuts in, “You’re so lucky your mom is a beautician, Auri.”
“Yeah,” a red-headed girl next to the black-haired girl pipes in, “you must get so much free stuff!”
“Well, yeah—” Auri starts.
Casey grips her arm, eyes pleading, “You have to help us get a discount. Giselle’s mom,” Casey nods her chin at the black-haired girl, “manages a Sephora and she always makes sure we have the best new eyeshadow pallets.”
“Oh, of course! My mom would be so happy to—”
“Ah! You’re the best Auri!” Casey squeezes her arm, “I just knew we would be best friends!”
Auri smiles shyly down at her lap.
“Now if only your mom worked at the mall, you’d have pretty hair and clothes,” the red-head girl giggles.
“OMG! Yes!” Giselle turns to marvel at Casey’s outfit. “Like look at Casey! Her dad owns the mall downtown and she always has the trendiest outfits.”
Casey laughs with her mouth closed, like Giselle has said something cute. “Thanks, Elle. This is my new favorite cardi. It’s handmade—none of that fast fashion machine knit crap.” She sighs and pets her shoulder, “It’s so luxurious.”
Auri has to admit the cardigan is nice. Pastel pinks and greens with cute little strawberries and flower-shaped cream buttons. Auri glances down at her own plain, navy t-shirt, high-waisted jeans, and the shoes she wears practically everyday. She crosses her arms over her chest.
After school, Auri trudges home, the red-haired girl’s words echoing in her head. It’s gotten hotter and more humid throughout the day and now Auri openly frowns. Sweat beads at her forehead, mixing with her hairspray. Her demeanor on her walk home from school shows a marked difference from the one on her way to school that morning. What’s not different is the presence of Ms. Bradley knitting on her porch. Remembering the odd stare the old woman had given Auri this morning, she keeps her head down, trying not to provoke Ms. Bradley’s notice. She’s in too much of a bad mood to smile and make small talk anyways.
If Auri had looked up, she would have first wrinkled her nose at the sight of Ms. Bradley clad in multiple knitted garments despite the suffocating heat. Then, she would have caught the moment Ms. Bradley’s fingers stilled, having just cast off her current project—the moment Ms. Bradley raised her head and smirked right at Auri, sulking home.
At home, Auri wastes no time. She grabs her mom’s laptop, sneaks off to her room and types “designer strawberry cardigan,” her fingers stamping down the keys. She gasps when she finally finds what looks to be the one Casey was wearing.
It costs more than the laptop in front of her. Auri has never had that much money. Her mom would probably have a stroke if Auri asked her for a piece of clothing that cost more than $50. Auri knows Casey is rich, but seriously?
Auri steels herself against the hot anger that swells in her chest.
Why do I have to be poor?
She glares at the garment floating on her screen, sneers at the way threads of yarn stick out of it to make it look more grungy. I can do that! I can make a stupid cardigan with yarn! How hard can it be?
It’s this thought that leads Auri down the rabbit hole of searching “how to knit.” It’s her anger at being poor that makes her realize that yarn, knitting needles, heck even tapestry needles are expensive. It’s that same anger that makes her remember Ms. Bradley, knitting on her porch.
The next morning, Auri rises with the sun from a mostly sleepless night. She throws on some clothes, not even bothering with makeup, and grabs a bagel on her way out the door, chewing it moodily on her way. In no time, she’s approaching a familiar white-washed, Victorian-style home and its railed, covered porch. For some reason, Auri’s surprised when she finds Ms. Bradley there in her rocking chair, her head bent. Auri stands at the foot of the steps leading up to the porch for what feels like an eternity, too nervous to disturb her.
Right when Auri opens her mouth to say something, Ms. Bradley beats her to the chase.
“You’re early this morning.”
Her voice sounds much smoother than Auri imagined it would.
Auri nods, before realizing that the old woman still hasn’t lifted her head.
“Yes, good morning.” Auri places a tentative hand on the porch rail, “I was—I have a question for you.”
“What was that?”
Auri scrunches her brows impatiently and climbs the few steps up to the porch, “I said I have a question for you.”
Ms. Bradley looks up. Now, closer to the woman than she has ever been before, Auri realizes that Ms. Bradley isn’t as old as she thought she was. Apart from a few wrinkles around her eyes and lips, Ms. Bradley’s skin is flawless, almost better than Auri’s. Her auburn hair is only streaked in a few places with grays and her fingers look deft, not crooked and spotted as Auri imagined they would be.
“Well, what is it?”
Auri clears her throat, “I was wondering if you could—if you would teach me how to knit.”
Auri swears she sees a sparkle in Ms. Bradley’s eyes. She smiles and Auri smugly delights that she seems to have made this poor, lonely old woman’s day.
“Of course, child. It would be my pleasure.”
Auri had vastly underestimated the learning curve for knitting. Even though Ms. Bradley had started her off with thick, bright yarn and chunky needles, Auri struggled for the first two days with simply casting on stitches. She had no idea how Ms. Bradley’s fingers could move so swiftly and precisely. Auri’s fingers were always either fumbling or slipping. When she finally moved on to learning how to do a basic knit stitch her tension was horrendous—always either too tight or too loose. Auri felt her frustration like a beast trapped behind bars, but, no matter how much she sighed and stomped her feet, Ms. Bradley was calm, patient. She even encouraged Auri in that oddly soothing voice of hers with murmured praises.
By the second day, Auri began to feel a bit more comfortable and to understand the rhythm of the craft. She mastered the knit stitch before noon that day and struggled for the rest of the day and most of the next with the purl stitch. On the evening of the third day, Auri had settled herself on the couch right after dinner with her knitting and didn’t even realize the sun had gone down until her mom came down stairs. When Auri decided to look up after a few hours of non-stop knitting, she realized she was sitting in the dark and must have been for a while. When her eyes adjusted, Auri had discerned a figure looming before her. She had flinched back, a shriek bursting from her throat. The overhead light had flicked on, and sighing in annoyance, Auri lowered her knitting needle, which she had planned to wield as a weapon, when the light revealed her mom’s face. Her mom had laughed at her for being so easily spooked, and Auri expected their exchange to end there. But surprisingly, her mom sank onto the couch beside her and started asking her about her knitting. Auri’s heart had swelled at the hint of genuine interest she thought she could hear in her mom’s tone.
By her fourth day with Ms. Bradley, Auri was still a long way away from knitting a cardigan. She had only just advanced by Ms. Bradley’s standards to learn the basics of gauge swatching and was still restricted to using only clunky straight needles. Meanwhile, Ms. Bradley’s stitches seemed to practically knit themselves. Auri envied the speed of circular needles and knitting in the round without pesky purl stitches.
Throughout these four days, Auri hadn’t spoken to Ms. Bradley about anything that didn’t involve yarn or needles. The woman was kind enough, offering her tea and giving her snacks between their several-hours-long knitting sessions. But Auri still sometimes couldn’t help but feel unnerved in her presence. Ms. Bradley’s silence felt stifling, and Auri often found herself circling back to the same thought. She was here, spending her break in the house of an old woman she knew nothing about. The only information Auri had gathered about Ms. Bradley in the few days she had spent with her was that her first name is Moira, she prefers to work with lightweight yarn, and she likes sugar but no cream in her tea. Auri often found herself wanting to fill the awkward extensive silences that dominated their days with polite questions, but there was always something about the look in Ms. Bradley’s eyes, the tilt of her smile, that held her tongue.
When Auri arrives on the fifth day of her knitting apprenticeship, Ms. Bradley is not waiting for her on her porch. Perplexed, Auri tries to knock on her front door only to find it is slightly ajar. Auri finds Ms. Bradley in the living room at her usual place beside her bay window, but instead of sitting in her floral chair, the woman is perched before a huge wooden contraption. The contraption’s large wheel turns in time with the pedals Ms. Bradley lightly presses down with her feet. She’s humming a repetitive tune and gently pulling a thick chunk of fleece from a basket at her feet into a thin strand that gets twisted up into the wheel. Auri stays rooted in place for a while marveling at the strange sight.
“You trying to catch flies, girl?”
Auri shakes her head, closing her gaping mouth and biting down on her lips in embarrassment. “Sorry. What are you doing?”
Auri finds her way to her usual seat, a deep maroon leather armchair next to Ms. Bradley and her contraption.
“How did you know I was here?” Like Ms. Bradley, Auri’s gaze remains fixed on the mesmerizing motion of the fibers twisting up into the spinning wheel.
“I saw you through the window,” Ms. Bradley deadpans, and Auri’s embarrassed all over again.
She tries to laugh it off, “Is it hard? Spinning yarn?”
“It was at first, but I’ve had plenty of time to practice.”
Auri nods. For a while, there is only the gentle thrum of the wheel spinning and pedals working. Auri reaches down beside her chair and begins pulling out her needles, “Just how long have you been doing it all, Ms. Bradley? Spinning, knitting, you sure make it look easy.”
Ms. Bradley lets out a soft chuckle, “How long? Well, I learned to knit when I was five and helped my grandmother spin yarn ever since I can remember.”
“You must have so many knitted clothes—is that why you are always wearing something knitted? Like yesterday, it was so hot but you were wearing that sweater and a hat.” Auri rambles, her focus on keeping her tension even.
“I like to keep warm. When you get old you’ll understand.”
Auri smirks. Old people really love to say stuff like that.
“Why did you keep knitting?” Auri asks, starting on her next row.
“Why did you start knitting?”
Auri’s fingers still, Casey’s cardigan flashing before her eyes, the phrase “pretty hair and clothes” playing back in her mind. Last night, she had stupidly decided to scroll through Instagram before she fell asleep. The first post on her feed was Casey with Giselle and that red-head girl posing on the beach. Auri had wrinkled her nose at the jewels glittering in the sun on Casey’s bikini top. Auri wouldn’t be surprised if they were Tiffany diamonds.
Auri shrugs, “I didn’t wanna be bored over break.”
The ambient thrum of Ms. Bradley’s spinning wheel fades out and Ms. Bradley sighs.
Auri arches her brow. Ms. Bradley has never called her by name before. She places down her needles. “Yes?”
Ms. Bradley has turned to face her, her eyes intent. Since she’d been spending most of her time with the woman while they were both knitting, Auri realizes this is only the second time she’s properly taken in Ms. Bradley’s features. Oddly, now her face seems different, older somehow.
“I’d like you to do me a favor,” Ms. Bradley says.
Auri, slightly confused by the sudden seriousness of her tone, sets down her knitting.
“Sure, what is it?”
Auri’s never been anywhere in Ms. Bradley’s house except her living room, but she’s not surprised to see that the woman’s collection of doilies extends to all the surfaces of her home. As Auri mounts the squeaky, wooden stairs behind the living room, her eyes catch on all the antique furniture and black and white photographs that line Ms. Bradley’s hall. Her house seems like a chunk cut out of time. A Victorian dollhouse completely preserved from dust and decay.
Auri reaches the second floor and starts towards the second door on the left, just as she was instructed.
“Bring me some more fibers to spin.” Ms. Bradley had requested. Her voice had been strained, shadows defining the wrinkles of her skin despite the sun shining through the window in front of her.
The door of Ms. Bradley’s crafting supplies room is shut, the brass knob cool to Auri’s touch. Despite the spring heat outside, the upper floor seems several degrees colder. Auri shivers, breathes in and out and twists the knob.
The door swings open with a creak. Auri steps into the room, her eyes wide. There’s not a window in sight but even in the dark Auri can see that shelves overflowing with yarn line every wall from floor to ceiling. Auri hurries over to the center of the room and stretches her arm upwards. After a bit of fiddling, she catches and pulls a thin metal chain. The room floods with light from a singular lightbulb in the center of the ceiling. Strangely, the orange hue now bathing the room and its contents makes them seem eerier to Auri. It’s even colder here inside, like the room exists somewhere deep within the ground where the warmth of the sun has always been unknown. Still, Auri can’t help but feel a sense of awe at the sheer amount and variety of yarn that Ms. Bradley owns. Auri runs her fingers over yarn as thin as thread and as thick as a rope, squishing and testing the coarseness of each skein and hank in sight.
Halfway through the first shelf, Auri’s eyes land on a high shelf farther down the row, stuffed with cloth-lined wicker baskets. She skitters over, reaching up onto her tiptoes, not bothering to peek into the basket before sticking her hand in it. The fiber within is gloriously silky, so soft and thin like…
Auri yanks her hand back holding it to her chest.
The basket comes tumbling off the shelf at Auri’s movement. Hair spills out of the basket and Auri’s heartbeat becomes a painful thudding in her chest. She crouches down beside the basket, her stomach turning as the strands of hair shine gold and amber in the harsh light.
I have to put this back.
Auri’s hand trembles as she begins scooping the hair back into the basket, shuddering at the softness that she had marveled at moments before. Her horror augments with every handful. The hair feels heavy in her hand. Alive. With every strand Auri touches, an amalgamated wave of sadness, anger, disgust, and fear washes over her. She knows it’s crazy but it feels like the hair is speaking to her, warning her.
Somehow Auri manages to put the basket back. She backs slowly out of the room. Her mind racing with excuses to feed Ms. Bradley so she can leave without seeming rude. Auri’s heart screams at her to dash down the stairs and out the door, not stopping until she is safe at home. Instead, she moves with a rigid slowness, shutting the door, and walking down the stairs.
Ms. Bradley turns at the groan of the hardwood floor that gives away Auri’s return to the living room. Her eyes narrow first at Auri’s empty hands, her brow then quirking inquisitively at Auri’s dazed expression.
“I have to go,” Auri moves robotically to her chair, collecting her things. “My mom just called, she needs me to head back home and take care of my brother. He’s not feeling well.” Auri’s voice sounds odd to her own ears. Much too far away. Lifeless.
“Why didn’t you bring me any fiber to spin?”
Auri stills, her back turned away from Ms. Bradley, “I—” Auri winces at her hesitation, “I couldn’t find any.”
Auri doesn’t stick around long enough to notice if Ms. Bradley replies to her, much less to discern the knowing smirk that transforms the old woman’s features. Auri certainly doesn’t stick around long enough to remember that she had left her phone on her chair when she had gone upstairs, to realize Ms. Bradley knows her phone never rang.
The rest of the day Auri is too sick to her stomach to resume her knitting. She waits around until her mom gets home, weighed down by a heavy hollowness. After dinner when both her dad and brother have disappeared into their respective rooms and it is just Auri and her mom on the couch, she voices the question she has been turning over in her mind all afternoon, “Mom, who is Ms. Bradley?”
Jane laughs distractedly, her focus mostly on her Facebook feed. “Dear, what do you mean? You’ve been going to her house for the past five days. Shouldn’t you know who she is by now?”
“No, mom. Like—” Auri sighs, “like how old is she? How long has she lived in that house? Does she have kids? Was she ever married?”
“I’m not sure why you couldn’t ask her these questions yourself, Aurelia.”
Auri rolls her eyes at the impatience in her mom’s tone.
“I don’t think she was ever married…” Jane says, scrolling a bit more. She pauses as her brows gradually scrunch together, “Well, actually now that I think about it. She’s just always been at that house. I mean I remember a Ms. Bradley when I was your age.”
Auri’s nausea returns, “Her mother?”
Jane’s finally looking at her, “I guess so. I suppose the genes in her family are just super strong. She’s the spitting image of her mother. Knitting must be in their blood too.”
Auri’s expression must be troubling. Her mom places a hand on her shoulder, “Did something happen, Auri? Why are you asking me this?”
Auri’s not sure herself. “There was hair in her craft room.”
“That makes sense, most yarn is made of hair. From sheep, alpaca—”
“No, mom. Human hair.”
Suddenly, Jane chuckles like she’s finally realized the punchline of a joke she heard long ago. “That’s what she does with it.”
“I wondered why she’s always coming into the salon and asking us if she can have our extra hair.” Jane smiles, “Sweet old woman, she’s making wigs.”
The next day Auri’s curiosity wins out over her fear. On her way to Ms. Bradley’s house, she chastises herself for her foolishness. What did she think was happening? What other use would Ms. Bradley have for human hair? Last night, Auri decided she would not act weird at all. She would answer all her questions through simple conversation, no need to jump to conclusions with her own convoluted imagination.
Now, as she approaches Ms. Bradley’s porch, Auri feels her courage waning. Once more, Ms. Bradley is nowhere to be seen and her front door is ominously cracked open. Auri steps through the door and heads for the living room. But Ms. Bradley is not there either.
Nausea spikes again in Auri’s stomach when she hears a shuffling sound coming from somewhere overhead. Normally, she would never dare to venture further into someone’s home unless they gave her permission, but something pulls Auri towards the stairs, beckoning her to find the source of the sound. Auri winces at the telltale planks that threaten to betray her as she creeps up the stairs. She reaches the second floor. Auri sees her feet walking forward, towards the craft room, but she feels as though she is watching some other teenage girl with golden hair from afar instead of moving herself.
Her trancelike state is broken when she notices that the first door on the right is ajar. A floorboard creaks within, drawing Auri to the door. Staying close to the door, Auri peeks inside. The room is dark, the curtains blocking out the morning sun, but Auri can make out the silhouette of a bed and a woman sauntering towards the middle of the room. Ms. Bradley. Suddenly, orange light fills the room, revealing the back of a woman in a pink nightgown with a head of cropped white hair. Auri nods to herself.
Wigs. She hasn’t put on a wig yet!
If she stays long enough surely she will see Ms. Bradley put one on and it will all make sense. Her reassurance is short lived. Ms. Bradley moves to the armoire by her bed. Inside, it’s bustling with knitted garments. Distantly, Auri realizes this is the first time she has seen the old woman without one on. Ms. Bradley selects a sweater. The way it shines under the orange light makes a lump settle in Auri’s throat. Shines. Just like the strands of hair in the craft room. Suddenly, Auri’s mind races recalling every single one of the knitted garments Ms. Bradley has worn. They all were shades of brown or gold. They all were lightweight, made of the thinnest yarn Auri had ever seen. They all shined…like Auri’s hair in the sun.
Ms. Bradley moves next to the vanity table directly across from the door where Auri lurks, petrified. The face reflected in the mirror is ancient, made entirely of wrinkles and spotted skin, framed by coarse white hair. The old woman slips the sweater over her head. A face emerges, but it’s blurred with a motion akin to melting. The marks of age fade and finally Ms. Bradley’s face and hair as Auri knows them materialize in the mirror.
Ms. Bradley tilts her head, admiring her appearance. Slowly, her thin lips spread into a grin. Her eyes flick upward, meeting Auri’s damning reflection in the corner of the mirror. Auri watches in horror as Ms. Bradley lifts a pair of thick metal scissors from her vanity table. The glint of the blades in the light glitters in the old woman’s eyes.
“Aurelia, my little Goldy Locks. Won’t you let down your hair?”