Editor's Note: This story got briefly "lost in the shuffle" when Jean entrusted Anotherealm.com into my care. I'm glad we got the tangle combed out. I wouldn't want you to miss this hairy tale......

Splitting Hairs

by Sherri L. Smith © 2001

Cordelia kept her magic bound up in her hair. A simple trick, really, to hide it in the curls and tangles there. A few properly placed combs held it together nicely. It had been a disaster in the sixties, with the wild afro styles flinging her spells this way and that, and in the late 80s, with those geometric cuts and spiral perms-her spells got so kinked up, they wouldn't work for months. And so came the blessed 90s, with their au naturale look and, at last, Cordelia's magic came into it's own.

She kept it back these days, twisted in a low chignon, or clipped with a butterfly clasp that had had all the ritual spells hummed into it. Cordelia's hairdo was safe now. She only took it down to wash it, or to work a little goodwill into the world.

Cordelia lived in a three-story brownstone in a respectable part of the Lower East Side. She was friendly with her neighbors, made a nice living selling dyed silk scarves on St. Mark's Place (and at Barney's in Midtown, at a mark up, of course). For a woman who kept her magic in her hair, she had a mostly nice, if unremarkable life. Age had mellowed her. No longer frantic about the style of her dark brown curls or the state of the world, she had found better things to do with her time. Cordelia liked to work in her garden, or talk to friends, and hardly bothered with her hair much at all. Which is why disaster befell her entire apartment building the day Cordelia got a split end.

Nothing to cry about, you say. Snip it off with a scissor, give it a hot oil treatment and be done. So she would have.

But this particular hair, this one out of millions that graced her mahogany head, was the only strand still holding its tenuous grasp on her greatest spell for Assured Rent Control.

Without it, the leases would have crumbled back in '84, when this became a more "fashionable" part of town. She and her neighbors would have been thrown out onto the street, destitute.

In the early 80s, Cordelia had kept her hair braided tightly, weighed down with beads like her favorite group, Ashford and Simpson. The spell had been as safe as houses. It was going nowhere. "Solid," as Ashford would have said, "as a rock." But 80s ended and the braids came out, and alas, years later, the hair also decided to come undone.

Why couldn't it have been the hair that kept Jimmy Two-Nose's yippy little Pekinese quiet, or the one that made Mrs. Jefferson down in 2B's hips look three inches smaller to make her feel desirable again? Jimmy wasn't working double shifts anymore. The dog had stopped it's lonely howling. And Mrs. J's husband had started taking Viagra last month. Split any of those hairs and everything would still be okay.

As it was, things were horrible. The next morning, green slips showed up on the door of each apartment, like discolored Passover markings from a poorly illustrated bible.

"I just don't understand it," Mrs. Cobbler, the widow in 3E mused, scratching her blue-gray head. Cordelia had devoted a lock of hair to helping Mrs. Cobbler up the stairs. The poor woman had bad ankles, and a son whose allowance checks came once a week to her mailbox on the first floor.

"I pay my rent right on time, every month," Mrs. Cobbler said, bewildered. "Why are they trying to get rid of me now?"

A building-wide meeting was called, the occupants of all ten units huddled in the living room of Cordelia's third floor apartment. 3D was the only unit with access to the roof. Cordelia kept a garden up there in the springtime, fragrant jasmine and hothouse plants kept alive in giant terra cotta pots somewhat longer than natural after their season had passed. She used to keep the garden going in the winter too, and would have considered holding the meeting upstairs. But Cordeila had let her bangs grow out for those damn perms in the 80s, and the garden had had to fend for itself ever since.

So Cordelia had everyone up to her apartment, with its trusty old hardwood floors and the pre-war bathtub in the kitchen that she used to raise oregano and thyme. The super had installed a proper shower nine years ago. A shower that had been affordable back then. One that she and her co-tenants would be paying for with interest now, if they chose to stay.

Cordelia served Russian tea cakes to ease the guilt of ruining the spell, and peppermint tea to wash it all down.

"Progress, " she said. "The march of time."

Everyone nodded or grumbled and ate their cookies. They sipped their tea in silence.

Jimmy Two-Nose scratched his Pekinese on the belly. "I just got out of working double shifts, too," he said to no one in particular. Cordelia could see the dollar signs, the scales of budget and balance shifting in his head.

She could, of course, tell everyone about her witchery, her split hair, the failed spell. She could get them all to help her concoct a new spell to keep the higher rents in check for another twenty years. It would be more work than it had been in her younger days, what with inflation and the onset of graying, but it could be done. Until the next split end. And, more importantly, if any of her neighbors could afford the new rent hike today.

Cordelia held her tongue and ate another cookie. The walnut tasted bitter in her mouth.

"I suppose," said Mrs. Cobbler," I can move to New Jersey with my son. He has a nice place on the shore. No stairs. I could take up diving again."

"Maybe I could get a roommate," Jimmy Two-Nose mused. "Someone with another little dog. You'd like that, wouldn't you, Chinook?" He scratched his Pekinese on the back.

Cordelia raised her head at the miracle. Progress, she thought. Adaptation. The march of time.

Mrs. Jefferson sat on her husband's lap and played with his earlobe. "Well, Jerry, there goes the trip to Italy."

"Well, Evelyn," he replied. "We'll just have to have our second honeymoon right here at home."

Cordelia almost spilled her tea. The world, split end or not, kept on turning. Miracles, indeed.

A weight lifted off of her shoulders then, like Atlas as he shrugged and passed the globe on to Hercules.

The tenants of the brownstone laughed or sighed, hugged each other or themselves, and went back to the task of working out their daily lives. In a moment, the living room was empty. Cordelia sat among the crumbs and said, "Hah. What do you think of that?"

That night, when the moon was full, Cordelia took her sewing kit, the one she used to put tags on those overpriced silk scarves (reasonably price, at St. Mark's place) and climbed to the roof to sit in her garden under the stars.

The world is still turning, she noted. The butterfly clip came easily from her hair. The moon is still in the heavens, and the buildings still stand firmly on the ground.

Cordelia smiled to herself, a girl again, with an ease in years. So many worries, earthly concerns, big and small, had bent her neck over time. And now it seemed she could start letting them go. Cordelia ran her fingers through the magic in her hair until she found it, the lock she had bound in the '64 to keep all those poorly built satellites up in the sky.

From the sewing kit, she took her scissors, held them to the lock of hair and snapped them shut. Soft, dark and curly, her hair fell, light as Mrs. Jefferson's baby doll teddy, to the fertile floor of her garden.

Cordelia sighed as the first satellite flared and arced like a star down through the evening sky. A few phones wouldn't work in Hoboken tonight. No great matter, in the human scheme of things. A haircut is long overdue, thought Cordelia. And the world… Well, the world will just have to get by.

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