Bridget leaned on her walking stick watching clouds cross the mountain; Croghan was purple and mottled, like her hands that she’d filled with peanuts earlier, topping up the bird feeder. From one of the outhouses, where her son Tom was doing a bit of clearing, his voice called to her, sounding concerned. She found him by the workbench with a tin caddy in his hands, ancient and rusting. He had prised off the lid and was staring at a mass of auburn curls spilled out across the wood, like a wound. A full head of hair, some woman’s crowning glory.
‘I found this canister fallen down behind those shelves, covered in dust.’
Bridget drew nearer. ‘What in God’s name?’
Tom was perplexed. ‘Who’d keep a caddy full of hair?’
Bridget reached out to touch one of the long strands when she paused, her hand hovering. She could feel the blood pumping in her ears and had to lean her knuckles against the workbench, trembling.
‘Whose hair could it be Mam?’ He looked at her, standing there, staring.
Tight-lipped, she shook her head and was gone, without another word.
Later that afternoon, Bridget heard a light tap on her bedroom door. Tom sat down on the edge of her bed. He was holding the canister. Putting out a blotchy, papery hand, Bridget sat up and opened the lid. She pulled one ringlet loose.
‘You know Seamus from the yellow cottage up the road? Mammy used be friends with his mother. These curls must be hers… Her head was shorn. And my uncle was the ringleader.’
Tom leaned back on his elbow, scratching his greying beard. ‘So that’s what the feud with that family was all about? I was told nothing.’
Bridget turned over the strands of hair, nodding.
‘This was during those frenzied days, at the height of the Civil War.’
‘Opposing sides then?’
‘No, both families were on the same side. Then Seamus’s mother was accused of passing information to the other crowd, through the family she worked for.’
Tom whistled sharply through his teeth and picked up the tin caddy, examining the glossy hair filling it.
‘What age was she?’
‘Fourteen Mammy said… She was shorn by a group of men, led by my uncle. Only the killing thing was, it turned out to be false.’
Bridget lay back against the pillow. ‘The apology after, it was never accepted. The whole thing was never spoken about, because he got it wrong.’
‘But Mam, why would he keep her hair?’
‘God only knows.’
She placed the ringlet back with the rest and closed over the lid, her wrinkled fingers pressing it down tight. Tom sat up, grimacing.
‘What the hell do we do with it?’
‘Seamus should have it. And you’re the one came across it.’
‘No way, it’s nothing got to do with me!’
Bridling, Bridget pushed the canister into his two hands. ‘Well I can’t do it!’
By the following morning Bridget was like a cow with a warble fly after her. All night, she’d twisted and turned in the bed. Pausing by the bathroom door where Tom was finished gargling, she met her son’s eyes in the mirror.
‘Wish to God you’d never found that tin.’
He could see the dread in her faded blue eyes.
‘You’re bringing it up to him then?’ Grim-faced, she nodded. ‘I’ll drive you so.’
The yellow cottage looked in need of a lick of paint. Callers were rare and it took Seamus a long time to shuffle to the door. Bridget could hear the walking frame clicking as he moved.
‘Oh! You?’ Seamus immediately stood more upright, his silver hair fluffing round the back of his head like a halo. After the slow, silent journey to the kitchen table, Bridget stood opposite and quickly set the tin caddy down on the blue oilcloth. Seamus queried with an eyebrow, so she explained.
‘Twas my son Tom found it.’
The tremor in his feeble hands made it laborious work, but Seamus finally wrenched the lid off and looked puzzled as the hair sprang up to meet his fingers. Confused, he shook the curls out and gasped, all the ruddy colour draining from his face. Easing his quivering hands underneath the pile, he drew two overflowing handfuls upwards.
‘My poor mother, separated from her hair.’
As his slumped shoulders began to shake, Bridget shifted uncomfortably.
‘Your mother’s head should never’ve been touched. Everyone, including my uncle, knew too late a mistake was made.’
‘She kept her hair short ever after, you know?’
Nodding, Bridget could feel a surge of emotion. She forced herself to continue. ‘Those men wronged her. My mother told me she didn’t deserve that.’
Immediately, Seamus looked over at her. And Bridget froze, sensing a sharp change come over him.
‘Those men gave the orders, but they didn’t carry them out.’
Bridget gazed at him, blankly. His bloodshot eyes were piercing. Now, he allowed the curls to fall through his fingers, scattering onto the kitchen table.
‘Your mammy was in visiting; they were over by the fire trying on shoes for a céilí. Then in through the door, a roomful of men. And because they were going so rough, your mammy took over.’
‘No,’ Eyes moistening, Bridget put her hand to a chair while Seamus continued.
’Otherwise, she’d’ve been shorn like a sheep!… She might have intervened for the right reasons, but my mother could never forgive her, nor any of her family.’
Bridget stared at the vivid, red-brown hair. She could picture the strands falling to the flagstones, pulled between her mother’s nimble fingers and the rasping blades of the scissors. She brought her fists to her face.
‘All her life, Mammy wouldn’t cut our hair. I could never understand why she always got someone else to do it. Holding herself back from us…’
Bridget ‘s eyes were drawn to the tangled curls. Only when Seamus began gathering in the hair, scooping it up and filling it back into the tin canister, did she rouse, watching his hands. Across the table, he looked at his neighbour.
‘My thanks to you, for bringing this back.’
Moving down the hall, she leaned heavy on her stick, stopping to open the front door.
‘To be honest Seamus, I didn’t want to, at all… Now, I’m glad I did.’
‘I’ll be seeing you Bridget.’
Out on the road, Tom held the car door open for her. She placed her hand on his.
© Sylvia Cullen
This short story was written as part of Words & Deeds, a project which was funded and supported by Wexford County Council in partnership with the Department of Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media as part of the ‘Decade of Centenaries 2023 programme’.