Rapunzel wakes like she does every morning, with the woman standing over her, smiling her motherly smile.
“Did you sleep well?” the woman asks.
Rapunzel shrugs. She is on her lumpy air mattress in the attic, her hair twisted around her like a mummy’s wrap. She knows about mummies from the History Channel. “Not really.”
The woman’s smile twitches, then rights itself. “You haven’t been dreaming, have you?” She says this like dreaming is an affliction, a symptom of some dread disease.
“No,” Rapunzel says. She knows plenty about dreaming from TV shows, though she has never experienced it herself. “I can barely sleep, it’s so stuffy in here.” This summer has been hotter than usual, and the attic is painfully close to the sun.
The woman’s smile broadens, and she lays a motherly hand on Rapunzel’s shoulder. “I’ll see what I can do about that, dear. Now, ready for a cut?” She holds up a hefty pair of scissors.
Rapunzel nods. The hair clings to her like a young animal, heavy and ever-growing, giving her a headache.
The woman cuts Rapunzel’s hair at her ears and gathers it into a big cardboard box, then drops the box through the attic trapdoor. It lands on the living room floor with a smack. She and Rapunzel climb down the rope ladder to the small living room, with its couch and coffee table and gangly floor lamp.
The woman keeps the TV on constantly, even when she’s not watching it—any channel will do. It’s just loud enough to be annoying, like a gnat buzzing in Rapunzel’s ear.
This morning the channel is Discovery. While they sit on the couch eating breakfast—toaster waffles for Rapunzel, a cup of unnaturally pink fat-free yogurt for the woman—Rapunzel learns about tensile strength and Kevlar and spider silk, and how a head of human hair can carry the weight of two elephants without breaking. Rapunzel wishes she could tune it out, but the harder she tries, the more the noise seems to burrow into her brain, burying these useless facts in her memory.
The woman pushes her half-empty yogurt cup away, saying some nonsense about being too full. The woman is constantly on a diet.
When Rapunzel returns to the attic, carrying a bottle of water and a PB&J sandwich for lunch, the woman kisses her on the forehead and locks the trapdoor. It’s for Rapunzel’s own protection. There are bad people in the world, the woman always says, people who carry baseball bats and break down doors and steal TVs.
The woman descends the rope ladder and goes out to work like she does every day, with her oversized Coach purse and her box of hair. Rapunzel watches her through the attic window. She hears the woman’s tall black boots click across the cement like anxious teeth, sees her pause to glance over her shoulder in Rapunzel’s direction before disappearing around the corner toward the wig place. She makes the most marvelous wigs from Rapunzel’s hair, or so the woman says—glamorous, expensive wigs, mostly purchased by actors and old people with too much money, and occasionally people with cancer.
Rapunzel has seen people with cancer on TV. She knows it’s wrong, but she feels slightly jealous of them with their shiny, bald heads. She knows she can never get cancer, because whatever magic makes her hair grow fast seems to keep her from getting sick. She has never had a cold, or the flu, or so much as a plantar wart. If the woman were smarter, Rapunzel thinks, she would sell more than Rapunzel’s hair. She would talk to the scientists, the universities, give them Rapunzel’s cells to study in their glass dishes. Those cells might turn out to have a cure for something, something worth enough money for the woman to buy everything on the Home Shopping Network.
But the woman doesn’t share her treasures.
The sound of the TV downstairs drifts up through the air ducts, some commercial about a vacuum cleaner (Groundbreaking suction technology!). Rapunzel massages her forehead. She can always hear it, a never-ending waterfall of sound, like there is a tiny TV plugged into the back of her skull.
Rapunzel kneels and rattles the trapdoor, just in case the woman has forgotten to lock it today. Of course not. Rapunzel does not even think of escaping the house, only of turning off that damned TV. The noise is a living thing. It weighs on her, heavier with each passing day; it surrounds her like smoke, working its way into her nose, her lungs, the small spaces in her brain. Closing around her memories.
The first thing she remembers is holding the woman’s hand and being led down the sidewalk to this house. It is a tall, narrow structure, slightly crooked, and it tapers toward the top like a pointed hat. The woman rents out the first two floors and lives on the third. It’s small: living room, galley kitchen, bathroom filled with creams and serums and glycolic peels—and the mysterious bedroom, which Rapunzel has never seen. The woman herself never goes in; she keeps the bedroom locked and sleeps on the couch every night. Then there is the attic, at the tip of the hat, where Rapunzel lives.
She had other memories when she first came here, Rapunzel is sure of it—memories of Before. But when she first set foot in this house and first heard that TV, her thoughts began to grow hazy. With each passing day, the memories faded. First went the names, then the faces. Now all she has is a sort of fuzzy shape resembling a mother in a place resembling a house. It could be this house, this woman. But she feels sure there was someone else, once…
When the woman returns in the evening, she brings with her a large, plastic, box-shaped thing. She hands it to Rapunzel magnanimously, then tells her to carry it up the rope ladder—not an easy task, because the thing is quite heavy. She shows Rapunzel how to put it in one of the attic windows, where it makes a loud, grumbly noise and begins pumping cold air into the room.
Rapunzel loves it.
After the woman tucks her into bed, Rapunzel sits up and stares at the shuddering A/C unit. She imagines a face in it—power switch and temperature dial eyes, cold-breathing grate mouth. The closest thing she has to a friend.
When she finally lies back down and closes her eyes, she realizes something is missing. No voices are drifting up from downstairs. No commercials, no soap operas, no reality shows. Miraculously, the A/C’s humming is loud enough to drown out the TV. With a sigh of indescribable relief and contentment, Rapunzel falls back onto her air mattress and falls deeply asleep.
This is when she has her first dream.
She dreams she is in the attic. Everything appears the same—lumpy air mattress beneath her, clock ticking on the wall, A/C groaning in the window. Yet Rapunzel senses something different.
She tries the trapdoor. Here, in the dream world, it is not locked.
She moves slowly, cautiously, down the rope ladder. The living room is the same as usual—almost. The coffee table, scattered with emery boards and sugar-free candy wrappers and a half-drunk mug of metabolism-boosting green tea. The couch where the woman sleeps each night, complete with the indentation her body has made in the cushions over the years.
But the woman is nowhere to be seen. And the TV screen is black.
Rapunzel tiptoes up to the door of the bedroom. She doesn’t know why it is never used—any time she asks, the woman irritably changes the subject—but she’s always guessed it has something to do with a man. She curls her fingers around the knob and turns.
It is unlocked.
As she steps inside, Rapunzel nearly chokes on the dust. She doubles over, coughing.
Rapunzel straightens up. Did she imagine the voice? It’s too dark to see anything, so she fumbles around until she finds a light switch. A small table lamp flicks on, casting a puddle of weak light over the room.
It is a place frozen in time: the bed unmade, a half-drunk glass of water on the nightstand, a basket of laundry in the corner that never got folded. A pair of pink slippers lies askew on one side of the bed, kicked off in haste. On the other there is a duffel bag, open to reveal a pair of enormous sneakers and a pile of clothing: T-shirts, jeans, baseball cap.
This time the voice is undeniable. Rapunzel crouches to peer under the bed. There, hidden behind the duffel bag, is a small cage. And inside is a little yellow finch.
Rapunzel lifts the cage out carefully, its gold bars glittering in the lamp’s feeble light. The bird stares up at her with gleaming black eyes.
“Be quiet,” he says, “or she’ll hear you.”
This may be the first bird Rapunzel has met, but she knows (from Animal Planet) that birds do not generally talk. She wonders if, on the inside, he is really a bird. But Rapunzel isn’t picky. She hasn’t had anyone to talk to, except of course the woman, in years—how many years? It’s all so fuzzy. She must have had people to talk to before, a real mother or father perhaps, but she can’t remember.
“Wh-who are you?” She is breathless with excitement, or maybe fear.
“A prisoner,” says the bird, “like you.”
Rapunzel sets the cage on the mattress, sending up a plume of dust. “Are you…real? Or are you just a figment of my imagination?”
The bird gives a scoffing chirrup. “We are not in your imagination. We are in her dream.”
Her. Rapunzel swallows. For some reason, she does not think the woman would approve of what she is doing right now.
She glances at the duffel bag. “You tried to leave her. And she…locked you in here?”
“Cheep! She’ll do it to you too, if she finds you here.”
“I don’t understand,” Rapunzel says, frowning. “How am I in her dream and not my own?”
The bird tilts its head toward her hair, now knee-length. “You have some sort of magic. Magic can do strange things with dreams.”
Rapunzel blinks as the meaning of this sinks in. “Does she have magic?”
“Of course.” The bird’s black eyes glitter. “You know what she is.”
“She’s…my mother.” This comes out more like a question than a statement.
“You don’t believe that,” the bird says. “You’ve always known.”
He is right, Rapunzel realizes. It’s like this knowledge has always been in her, deep in the corners of her mind, but until now it has been clouded by thick fog.
“No,” she says slowly. “She loves me.”
The bird laughs, a high-pitched chirrup. “Love and cruelty are not mutually exclusive. I should know. She is more dangerous than you thi—” He pauses, tilting his head, listening. “Get out. Hurry!”
Leaving the cage on the mattress, Rapunzel runs for the bedroom door. She barely has time to shut it behind her before—
She wakes in a daze. She is not on her air mattress—not in the attic at all. She is on the floor of the living room, tangled in her hair, which is now past her ankles. Light is streaming through the kitchen window, and in front of it is a silhouette, tall and dark.
The woman looks down at her with alarm. “How did you get here?”
“I…I don’t know. A…dream?”
At this, the woman looks even more alarmed. But Rapunzel is not paying attention. She is thinking about the bird in the cage behind the locked bedroom door. This thought sparks a rare memory: She met another bird, once. A normal, non-talking bird, at the zoo. It perched on her finger and ruffled its painted feathers, and she fed it little pieces of fruit, and there was someone with her—
“Here, sit down.” The woman, still in her nightgown, takes Rapunzel by the arm and guides her to the sofa. A children’s show is playing on the TV, showing a cartoon knight trying to fight off a dragon and rescue a princess. The woman clicks the volume up a few notches.
Rapunzel’s head begins to throb. She leans forward and presses her fingers to her temples. She feels the TV’s noise invading her skull, pushing her memories back into their corners.
“Headache?” the woman says brusquely, heading to the kitchen. “You’ll feel better once you eat breakfast.”
She brings out the waffles and yogurt, and they eat, as usual, in front of the TV. Rapunzel does not taste her waffle as she chews—she is too busy trying to dig up memories from the hard, dry earth inside her skull.
The children’s show ends. Another episode starts.
Rapunzel furrows her brow at the woman. “Don’t you have to be at work?”
“I’ll call in sick.”
“But you’re not—”
“I just want to spend some time with you, dear.” The woman smiles and puts her arm around Rapunzel.
Rapunzel has always believed the woman truly loves her, in her own strange way. But now she is beginning to wonder: Does the woman love her the way a mother loves a daughter? Or the way a dragon loves its treasure?
After another mindless episode, two cooking shows, and a murder mystery, the woman slathers gray mud on her face and paints her toenails with glitter. She says she’s found a new weight-loss thing to try: hypnotherapy. She saw it on TV.
Rapunzel is not listening.
In the past, Rapunzel didn’t mind sitting on the couch with the woman—it was cooler down here than in the attic. But something has changed. She feels like she is seeing her tiny world for the first time. The woman, filled with dark magic. The TV, enchanted to suffocate her memories and shut her out of dreams. The locked bedroom door, the bird-husband, the void he left behind.
She wonders if she was meant to fill that void.
Lifetime is showing a movie about a lady with cancer who wears a scarf around her bald head. Rapunzel looks down at her own hair, now dragging and coiling on the ground, a shining yellow chain.
The woman with cancer has a young daughter. They do things together, sweet and innocent things, walking through parks and playing board games and ice skating and, later, lying together in the woman’s hospital bed. As Rapunzel watches, they dissolve into pixels and LEDs, their voices fading into meaningless syllables.
She had her own mother, once. She is sure of it. But her head is too foggy to remember what her real mother looked like, or how her voice sounded, or the way she laughed when they fed the birds together at the zoo.
This causes something to stir within Rapunzel. Deep beneath the hum of the TV and the shadows clouding her mind, something is beginning to smolder.
Rapunzel wants her memories back.
So when the woman goes to the bathroom to wash the mask off her face, Rapunzel unplugs the TV’s power cable from the wall and stuffs it into her pocket. The room is suddenly silent, Rapunzel’s head suddenly clear. As she climbs the rope ladder, she sees vividly the curves and edges of a woman’s face—her true mother, years ago. She sees what she must do, laid out in front of her like the rungs of the ladder, one step after another.
She takes the padlock off the outside of the trapdoor and puts it on the inside. She locks herself in. In the glorious silence of the attic, she lies down on her air mattress and falls asleep.
This time, the dream world feels less foreign, less disorienting. Rapunzel goes straight for the trapdoor. She loops her hair over her shoulders and climbs down the rope ladder. The woman is gone, but still Rapunzel hesitates. She can sense the woman’s presence, as if she has left the room but her shadow remains, watching, waiting.
Taking a deep breath, she creeps into the bedroom.
“I’m leaving,” she tells the finch in a hushed voice. “I’m…running away.” Again, it sounds too much like a question.
“Good,” is all the finch says.
Rapunzel leans over his cage, running her fingers along the wires, searching for the latch.
“You can’t,” the finch chirrups. “It’s—”
But there are no locks in the dream world, and Rapunzel pops the cage door open.
The bird goes still for a moment, as if unsure this is really happening. Then he hops along his perch toward the opening, slowly at first, then faster. He tests his wings and flutters out, his movements stiff and clunky. Rapunzel feels his sharp claws curl around her fingertip as he lands.
It brings back the memory of the parrot, the one she fed at the zoo. This time, she can see her mother’s face as she hands Rapunzel a chunk of fruit to feed him.
“Hurry!” The finch stiffens on her finger. “I hear her.”
Rapunzel leaps up. “Hide,” she whispers as she runs across the bedroom, lifting her hand to her neck. The finch hops off and curls his claws in her thick hair. She hears footsteps as she hauls herself up the rope ladder, faster than she has ever climbed before, eyes wide, chest heaving. She lurches through the trapdoor and slams it shut—
She wakes violently at the sound of the woman’s voice. It is sharper now, less like a mother’s voice and more like the screech of a bird of prey. The trapdoor rattles as the woman pounds on it. The lock is still there. When Rapunzel runs her hands over her hair, the finch is still there too. It gives a frightened cheep in her ear.
“Yes?” Rapunzel asks, shrinking away from the door.
“You took the TV cable, didn’t you?” the woman calls.
Rapunzel’s lip trembles. “No.”
“I know you did. I need it back, dear. It may seem like a small thing to a child like you, but it is very important to me.”
Rapunzel does not like being called a child, especially by this woman. She straightens up, setting her jaw. “I don’t know what you mean.”
“You’ve been dreaming, haven’t you?” There is an accusatory edge to the woman’s voice.
“You know how important it is to tell the truth, dear.” The woman says it in the irritating tone of an adult talking to a three-year-old. She says it as if she really is talking about the truth, just the truth, as if this whole thing is about the truth. Rapunzel finds this ironic, considering everything about the woman is a sham.
Rapunzel says nothing. After a long moment, she hears the creak of the rope ladder and the click of footsteps across the living room floor, and the woman calls, “You can’t stay in there forever.”
Rapunzel knows she is right. There is no food or water here in the attic. Perhaps more urgently, there are no scissors, and the ever-growing weight of her hair is pulling her down, making movement slow and difficult.
But she can hear the woman down below. She prowls the living room floor, pacing back and forth beneath the trapdoor, sniffing the air. This TV business has wakened something feral in her.
“Dream it,” the finch whispers in her ear.
He’s right, Rapunzel decides. The only thing to do is fall asleep. In her dream, she will open the trapdoor and climb down the rope ladder and tiptoe out of the house. She’ll run as fast as she can, straight to the nearest laboratory to sell her cells, and then she’ll have enough money to buy her own house—and all the locks she needs to keep the woman out.
But as Rapunzel climbs out of her dream bed and drags her hair across the dream attic, she sees that now, even in her dream, there is a heavy black padlock on the trapdoor. Somehow, the woman—the witch, for that is what she is, what Rapunzel has always known her to be—has magicked her way into Rapunzel’s dream and locked her inside.
Rapunzel runs to the window and slams it open. The finch disentangles himself from her hair and flutters around her head, and together they look down, down, four stories to the sidewalk below. Even Rapunzel’s magic cannot protect her from a jump like that. She looks around the attic, searching for something, anything that can help her. But she is alone, except for the finch and the shivering A/C unit and her endless hair.
She pauses, winding a glossy tress around her finger. “Elephants,” she whispers.
Her hair is very long now, perhaps longer than the house is tall. Twisting it into a rope, she loops it through the wrought-iron loop of the padlock on the trapdoor. Then she climbs through the window and lowers herself down, the bird fluttering alongside her.
It is remarkably easy. Her biceps sting only a little as she drops to the ground and pulls her hair down into a golden puddle beside her. She walks tentatively across the front lawn, her hair unwinding behind her, feeling the dewy grass between her toes—infinitely softer than it looks on TV. She takes a few steps down the sidewalk. The sky is so much bigger than what she can see from her window; the buildings and streets seem to stretch on forever. The air smells of garbage bins and pizza grease and air pollution—it’s intoxicating. It brings to mind memories Rapunzel never knew she had, memories of her other mother, her real mother.
She jolts but does not wake. The woman is here, in Rapunzel’s dream. Her voice is the low growl of an animal that’s been lurking in the shadows, awaiting its prey.
Rapunzel starts to run, but something jerks her scalp and she tumbles to the sidewalk. The creature at the other end of her hair starts pulling, hand over hand, dragging Rapunzel painfully over the cement. Her nightgown rips, her skin tears.
When the pulling stops, she is on the sidewalk at the foot of the front door. Her sham-mother is standing over her, clutching Rapunzel’s rope of hair in clawlike fingers, her face pinched with anger. She looks older, as if shutting off the TV has deepened her wrinkles and set shadows over her eyes.
“You’ve given me no choice,” she says through gritted teeth. “I’m going to have to put you in timeout.”
In the early morning sunlight, the sidewalk is streaked orange with blood. Rapunzel’s stomach and thighs and breasts sting, and her nightgown sticks to the wounds. She is silent as the woman pulls her, by the hair, into the house and up the stairwell. There is no one else, no tenants or neighbors in this dream world, no police. The woman drags her to the third floor and shoves her across the living room to the rope ladder. Rapunzel climbs slowly, fighting the weight of her hair with each step, her head aching. She collapses on the floor in the dream attic, amid a tangle of bloody, grass-stained hair. She hears the trapdoor slam shut and the padlock click outside.
When Rapunzel wakes, her scalp is stinging with pain and the woman is pounding on the trapdoor.
“Are you ready to tell the truth, Rapunzel?”
The woman’s voice no longer holds any semblance of the sham-mother or the wigmaker. Her voice is witchy through and through. And Rapunzel knows she is not the good kind of witch, but the other kind, the kind who kidnap children and steal memories and turn husbands into birds. The finch was right, Rapunzel thinks: the witch is far more dangerous than she appears.
But so is Rapunzel.
The witch thumps on the trapdoor again. “You can’t stay up there forever. You have to eat. Tell me the truth, Rapunzel.”
Rapunzel looks down at her hair, so long now it almost fills the attic, a sea of gold waiting to drown her. Slowly, deliberately, she gathers it up and twists it into a rope. She makes a knot, a special kind of knot she saw once on the History Channel.
“If you don’t tell me the truth now,” the witch yells, “I’ll have to punish you.” Her voice curls on the last two words, as if she is thinking of all the cruel, witchy punishments at her disposal.
Rapunzel stands over the trapdoor and bends her knees, rooting herself to the spot. “I’m sorry,” she calls. “I’m ready to tell the truth now.”
A pause. A witch this powerful should be able to sense trickery, Rapunzel thinks—but perhaps she has been in control too long, she is too used to winning at her own games. Perhaps in the witch’s mind, all people will cave eventually.
People are just people. Hair is just hair.
“There’s a good girl,” the witch says.
The key scrapes in the lock. The trapdoor creaks open. The woman’s head emerges through the opening.
It is remarkably easy. All it takes is one quick motion for Rapunzel to loop her hair around the witch’s neck, one swift tug to make her lose her balance. The witch scrabbles at the rope ladder, but it is swinging now, and Rapunzel’s grip is strong. The rope of hair sways and twitches. Her biceps strain. All she has to do is wait. She waits, waits for the woman’s witchy breath to dissipate and her magic to ebb away, before going downstairs.
The TV screen is black and dead. The front door is unlocked. When Rapunzel opens it, there is a man standing outside, brushing feathers from his hair and wincing in the sunlight. He takes a hopping step toward her, wobbling on his new legs.
“You changed,” Rapunzel observes.
“Yes,” he says in a whistling voice. “I forgot what it felt like. What the world looked like.”
“So did I.” But as Rapunzel peers out at the cars and the streets and the dandelions springing up through cracks in the asphalt, she feels memories pressing at the edges of her mind. Ghosts of an old life—or perhaps a new one.
She walks out the door to meet them.