Lit.-Mag #36 Home & Homecoming
Too much sadness and too little hair
A baby with hair
The rubber doll, probably conceived in the Russian doll factory as a boy baby, or a baby in general, sexless like all dolls and all toys in the world, her treasure, her baby kin, which her Mother had bought her in the city market, her most beloved baby, that is her only one – had no hair.
The Little Girl did not like male babies, did not like boys, she was ashamed and disgusted by them; she wanted a baby with hair. But Mummy had no money to buy her a doll with hair, like the one belonging to the daughter, an only child, or the one belonging to Mirica, her cousin, an only child: the one from Italy, the magnificent one that sat in the middle of the double bed in the beautiful big house, where the bed linen had Mirica’s name embroidered on it, the one in the magnificent pink dress with lace flounces… But never mind the dress; it was the hair that mattered, those cascades of locks which fell over the shoulders of Italian dolls – oh…
The Little Girl longed, wished, dreamed, daydreamed, that she had that doll, and knew that she would never, n e v e r, NEVER ask her mummy to buy it for her. She knew that it could not be bought; it was rude even to enquire.
In the evening, under her heavy woollen quilt that stifled her, pressing her thin little hands onto her stomach, she would repeat God, give me a baby with hair, and with that desire drifted into sleep and surfaced from sleep, astonished that God had not fulfilled her desire – just as she would wake astonished in adulthood if He ever did fulfil one.
If on her way to school she went a hundred steps without treading on the line between the paving stones, Father would buy her a doll with hair. Father loved her, more than all of them, and every day he bought her something which her brothers and sister would not get, he held her in his lap and caressed her, which he didn’t do with the other children because he didn’t have time, but she was sickly, thin as a twig, her heart jumped and stifled her, and she went regularly to the sea because she had to, to Zelenika, when the sick children went there, and Father would understand why she needed that doll baby with hair so badly, and … she had stepped on a line between the stones… She wouldn’t even ask him.
The Little Girl was an excellent pupil, she worked hard, she learned her lessons in advance because she was bored in class, and the other children were so slow to understand, she was a good girl, she longed for someone to praise her because she was good, she never went anywhere she was not supposed to, she didn’t say bad words, so why couldn’t she have a doll from Italy? Or some other doll, just so long as it had hair? She didn’t understand the words: there’s no money. How come, when there was money for everything else just not for that doll? Why did they have to buy so much food and wood and clothes? You could do without all of those.
It was the spring of 1968. The little girl took her cardboard box out onto the meadow behind the house and took out each of her treasures one by one and placed them on the damp ground: brightly coloured chintz rags she would use to sew a dress for the baby she dreamed of; silk embroidery thread which she would weave into a ribbon for the hair of the baby she dreamed of; a little shoe box, she would use it to make a bed for the baby she dreamed of. Here too was her only, boy baby, the one without hair … what would she do with it when she got the baby she dreamed of? She took the baby without hair and cuddled it, saying I won’t leave you, don’t worry, and she nearly cried for sadness that this one didn’t have hair, and that she had to not love it because it had no hair, and that she had to dream of the one with hair, which she had to love in advance, even without seeing it.
Father had shouted last night, he came home tipsy and snored on the double Bed; something had happened that the Little Girl didn’t understand, but she knew that it wasn’t good. Mummy had big blue bags under her eyes this morning, and she had not stroked her head and said Mummy’s lambkin. Father came out and said to her and her sister, Get ready, we’re going out. They didn’t dare ask where, and got ready and set off after him down the steep street, holding hands, without a word, like every time they went anywhere together. The Little Girl didn’t like holding her sister’s hand, for her Sister hated holding hands and she hated the Little Girl because of that hand holding as though it was her idea, but this morning she liked it because she was afraid of being alone and her Sister’s hand was something that connected her to the house which had been so sad that morning, suffocating and cramped for everyone who lived in it.
They went into a shop where the sign said Men’s Hairdresser; a man with combed hair full of brilliantine sat them down on seats, one beside the other, and cut off their beautiful long plaits, first her Sister’s, then the Little Girl’s. The Little Girl did not remember much apart from the circle of her hair lying round the hairdresser’s chair, and sorrow, and the horror with which she knew Mummy would look at them both, two plucked chickens with short spiky boys’ hair, and Father’s smirk when he saw their mother’s face. I’ve got my own back, was written all over that face, which the Little Girl had never seen so ugly, and he handed Mummy an old newspaper with four plaits wrapped in it, sad and lonely and tearful, like Mummy, who unwrapped them, and wrapped them up again, and put them in the drawer of the dresser, where she kept needles and thread and some old yellow photographs.
A few days passed; Father was calm, Mummy was calmer, at school the Little Girl and her Sister were ashamed of their haircuts, but there was nothing to be done. The Little Girl went on dreaming about the baby she dreamed of, and life, which she had thought would come to an end with her parents’ quarrel, returned to the house. Her eldest brother went off to demonstrate, no one knew exactly what that was, but Father said The only way to talk to them is with a belt. Mummy rushed agitatedly through the house, opening and shutting cupboards, rummaging through the same drawers twice, putting away her hair that was already put away, dusting what had already been dusted, stroking the Little Girl’s head, although she had already done so that morning. Because of all of that the Little Girl wound round her Mother’s legs like a kitten, trying to provoke another caress, trying to summon the strength to ask Mummy, Will you buy me a baby with hair? Suddenly, Mummy – mummy knows – opened the drawer in the dresser once again, and said Hey, mummy’s lambkin, here take this and make your baby some hair, and handed her the newspaper with the four plaits wrapped in it, and then disappeared out of the kitchen into the bedroom, where she could be heard stifling sobs, but no one dared go in there.
The Little Girl went out onto the meadow behind the house, unwrapped the newspaper and looked at the plaits of dead hair, and saw the solution of her desires.
From that moment, until the moment when a pile of hair was stuck to the boy baby with O-HO glue, several long days passed. But that didn’t matter to the Little Girl, what mattered was that at last she had the baby with hair that she dreamed of. What the Little Girl could not see, but everyone around her could – first her Sister, then her brothers, then the neighbours, and the writer of these lines – was the fact that her little clumsy hands had not known how to stick the hair on properly, so that the baby, in fact, looked like a little typhus victim, with big patches of bald head and a few locks of hair which moulted like dogs’ fur and fell out every time the Little Girl wanted to comb it.
But, here is the important idea of the story, it is important that I wanted to say something, says the writer, while the Little Girl says What’s important is the hair, and we ought, in fact, all to be pretty happy with the outcome of this story, in which there is too much sadness and too little hair.
It’s not important that we are (I know, I know) on the side of the Little Girl and that finally, as in all stories about Divine justice, a year after this event her Mother would buy her a doll with hair, after she had her tonsils out, as a present for being brave, and that, after that, the Little Girl would connect every act of bravery in her life with dolls with hair, which no one bought her as a reward.
And it’s not important that the Little Girl, by Divine injustice, at the age of twenty-nine would lose almost all her hair, without anyone knowing why, not even the omniscient doctors. And that, by Divine justice, new hair would grow again almost over night: new, curly, beautiful, healthy, like her life, which from the moment she got her new hair developed like a long love story which survived even the people who did not get the main parts in it.
After the war in 1992, one in history and the hundredth for a Little Girl of this kind, the Little Girl gave birth to a Little Girl, a tiny baby – her baby kin. When they placed her on her breast, tightly wrapped in a dirty hospital nappy in the maternity ward where they washed the babies in cold water from war canisters because there was no power, the only thing that she wanted to know – before she fainted with pain – was whether the baby had hair. Of course, said the nurse, it’s a real miracle. She has long black hair.
Translated from Bosnian
by Celia Hawkesworth