After the tragic swallowing up of his wife by a puddle (reportedly an accident, rumored to be a suicide), John Poor was left alone to raise his infant daughter, Rapunzel. With each passing year, Rapunzel grew more beautiful. The day soon came when John Poor couldn’t help but notice the way Rapunzel gazed longingly at each cabbage they passed at the market. Determined to provide for his daughter and protect her from harm, and knowing he was not the only parent so inclined, he transformed his small and barely profitable chastity belt factory into Virgin Containment Systems International, the world’s leading manufacturer of Ivorine towers, schizophrenic alarm clockwork watchdogs, and the new SECUR line of autocursing deathbolts.
John Poor owns all the land between Fort Worth and Denton, and apart from the single Ivorine tower, hasn’t developed any of it. Recently I’ve heard rumors of plans for high-rise convents, which would be a shame, as I’ve always enjoyed the view on the way home from work – the meditating cattle, the faded and enduring sage, the mesquite trees posturing like players in a Greek tragedy on a stage stretching from horizon to horizon, and every once in a while, Rapunzel gazing at the sunset from the western window of her Ivorine tower. Is it any wonder I fell in love with her?
One day, sitting in my cubicle at work, I realized I was so much in love with Rapunzel that I would die if I didn’t speak to her. That very evening on my way home, instead of passing the Ivorine tower, I turned Ginger off of the road and into the long grass. I jumped down and hitched her to a fence post. Ginger was content to take a rest, eat some grass, and snort disapprovingly at some tumbleweeds which had gathered along the fence and were forming a committee to take action against fences. I walked along the barbed wire tugging at it here and there until I found a place where the wire was loose as Hardy’s pants on Laurel. I lifted up the middle strand, stepped on the bottom strand, and eased myself through, the top wire nearly knocking off my hat, a genuine 4X beaver hide Stetson.
I walked to the base of the tower and looked up at Rapunzel. The clouds in the sky, blowing from west to east, created the unsettling illusion that the tower was falling on me.
“Hello!” I said. “Can I come up?” I asked.
“No way!” Rapunzel said.
“Sorry,” I said, “I thought you might be lonely.” I turned around and started walking back to Ginger. Plan B was to make a deal with Honest Estes, the used horse lady. I would give her Ginger in return for a little burial plot on her range. The thought of Ginger keeping my grave trimmed up was comforting. I didn’t have anyone else.
“Wait!” Rapunzel said. I turned and looked up at her looking down at me. She smiled. My heart pounded. “I didn’t mean ‘no way’ like I don’t want you up here, I meant ‘no way’ like there is no way you can get up here.”
“What about that enormous rusty iron door?” I said.
“It’s locked with our new SECUR line of autocursing deathbolts,” she said. “You have to think of a nine digit number to open it. Only my father knows the number.”
“Does your father have a favorite number?” I asked.
“Nine,” she said.
“Does he have any other favorite numbers?” I asked, “Bigger ones?”
“No,” she said, “I don’t think so.”
“Well, then” I said, “I’ll just stand near the door and think of every number I can think of.” I walked up to the rusty iron door and closed my eyes.
“Stop!” Rapunzel cried. “Don’t think! If you think of the wrong number, you’ll go blind or mad.”
“Which?” I said, “blind or mad?
“I’m not sure. It’s a new feature.”
I looked up at Rapunzel, her hazel eyes bright, her vast quantities of red-brown hair lit up from the red-orange glow of the sunset. If I went blind, I would never see my Rapunzel again – but I would always remember her the way she was now – and that wouldn’t be so bad. And I was already mad with love for her. If her father favored nines, maybe he would favor nine of them.
I stood by the door. It wasn’t going to be easy – I wasn’t used to thinking about a number for its own sake, much less nine of them. I visualized one of those old fashioned typewriters with the keys on three levels, the kind where when you pushed down on a key, a tiny arm with a letter for a fist would swing out and smack the page.
My visualization kept getting blown to smithereens by the thought of John Poor finding me here. He was an important, and therefore dangerous, man. Some had taken to calling him Baron von Poor, though “Baron von” was strictly an honorary title. He never went anywhere alone – he was always accompanied by plenty of muscle and magic. “Concentrate!” I said to myself, but just when I was ready to mentally hammer a small, black nine onto the inside of my forehead, I heard Rapunzel’s voice again.
“And!” she shouted.
“And even if you think of the right number, there are nine flights of stairs up to my room in the tower, and each landing is guarded by a schizophrenic alarm clockwork watch dog. Each dog alternates between wagging his clockwork tail, and foaming at his clockwork mouth. If he’s wagging his tail, he will only lick your hand, but if he’s foaming at the mouth, he’ll rip your throat out. Only at certain times during the day are all the tails wagging. My father has a chart. He had it reduced and laminated so he could keep it in his wallet.”
I walked around to the other side of the tower. In a moment, I saw Rapunzel above me, leaning out of the eastern window.
“Have you got a rope?” I asked.
“No,” Rapunzel said.
“No blankets? Don’t you get cold at night?”
“I sleep under my hair. I have a ton of it. It’s never been cut.”
“Can I see it?” I asked.
Rapunzel pushed her hair out of the window – and it just kept coming. It was red and brown and curly, and it fell slowly, drifting like a giant jellyfish, all the way to the ground at my feet.
I grabbed the hair in a bundle with both hands.
“What are you doing?” Rapunzel asked.
“I’m going to climb up your hair,” I said. I turned the bundle around and around, probably a hundred times, until it was a thick, twisted rope.
“Are you sure this is a good idea?” she said.
“Brace yourself,” I said.
Climbing the tower was slow and difficult work. The Ivorine tower was smooth, hard and slick as a stick of margarine just out of the freezer, and the higher I climbed, the stronger the wind blew. Several times a gust of wind forced me to stop and let go of Rapunzel’s hair with one hand so I could hold onto my hat.
A quarter of the way up, I asked Rapunzel what she did all day in her Ivorine tower.
“I have tutors,” She said. “Math, Astronomy, Psychology, Literature, French, Biology.”
Halfway up, I stopped to rest. Below me I could see the interstate, thin and straight, like the cement had been poured onto an enormous drawing of a prairie rather than onto an actual prairie. Whatever else you may say about human beings, you have to admit we can draw a straight line on just about anything.
Three quarters of the way up, I asked Rapunzel how the tutors got up there.
“They don’t. It’s all done via closed circuit TV.”
“That’s a relief,” I said. “What subject do you like best?”
“Psychology. I’m interested in the chemical reasons why people do what they do.”
I let go of Rapunzel’s hair and grasped the ledge of the window. Rapunzel gave a “Whoop!” and fell backwards into her room. I pulled myself in through the window, and sat on the floor with my back against the wall, exhausted.
Rapunzel sat on the floor opposite me. She reeled in her hair and piled it up behind her. She told me she had never seen a man other than her father, except on the closed circuit TV. She asked me about current events, and I asked her what she did to pass the time in her room when she wasn’t studying.
“I brush my hair,” she said and she began brushing her hair. The brush she used was the size of a canoe paddle, but she handled it deftly. As she brushed, her hair changed. It became longer, and there seemed to be more of it. The color also changed, becoming a lighter and redder shade of red-brown. Our conversation also changed. We talked about hair. We couldn’t help it.
“I brush my hair twice a day,” she said.
“Your hair is beautiful,” I said. I felt a little silly after I said it. “Is it naturally curly like that?”
“Yes,” Rapunzel said.
“And is that your natural color?”
“Yes,” Rapunzel said.
“I’ve thought about growing my hair long like that,” I said.
She grabbed a sheaf of her hair in her left hand, and began brushing the end of the sheaf with her right. When she was done, she leaned her head towards me.
“Feel it,” she said.
I leaned forward and ran my hand over her hair. Since her hair had fallen in front of her face, I also felt her nose, which surprised me.
“Oh,” I said, “your nose.” She laughed. Her hair was thick and a little rough, like sisal. When I lifted my hand to adjust my hat, I could smell her hair on my hand.
“What is your hair like?” she asked, looking at my hat.
“It’s not as thick as yours, or as long, or as curly,” I said.
“What color is it?”
“Any color you can imagine,” I said.
Feeling strangely at ease with Rapunzel, I took off my hat – and I never take off my hat, except to bathe or sleep. It’s vanity, I guess – I’m just not comfortable with other people seeing my bald head. As for myself, alone, while there are some disadvantages to being bald, I feel that my baldness has given me something most people don’t have. I know what my head looks like.
For a moment, Rapunzel stopped brushing. This was the only sign she gave of any surprise at my hairless state. Then she began brushing again. I leaned my head towards her. She put her brush down and put her hands on my head. Her hands were warm and soft. I remained still, leaning over, my head down, her warm hands on my head. And she was also still and quiet. It crossed my mind that she might be praying – maybe praying to cure me of my baldness. She took her hands off of my head, and began brushing her hair again.
“You’re head is so smooth and round,” she said, “like a cabbage. Do you shave your head?”
“I’ve been bald like this since the day I was born.”
“When I was born, I had such a head of hair that my father called me his ‘little Moor’.”
“Does your mother have hair like yours?” Just as soon as the words were out of my mouth I remembered reading about how Rapunzel’s mother had died in a horrific puddle accident, and I felt terrible and I wished I could take the words back. But the question didn’t seem to bother Rapunzel.
“I don’t remember,” Rapunzel said. “She killed herself when I was six. I suppose there are pictures, but I think my father keeps them hidden from me. I don’t know why she killed herself. My father said she had headaches.”
There was a fantastic amount of hair in the brush, and Rapunzel said she was worried too much had fallen out. I told her I didn’t think she needed to worry. After she pulled all the hair out of her brush, she balled the hair up by rolling it between her palms. She set the ball of hair down on the floor between us. It was as big as a basketball.
I picked up the ball of hair. It was stiff and springy. Individual hairs shot out of the main ball in all directions, as if the hair itself were growing hairs. If I squeezed it flat, it sprang back into shape. If I set it down, the ball seemed to float a foot above the floor, supported by fine, almost invisible hairs coming out of it. I touched my head, and compared its absolute smoothness to the sandpapery texture of the hair.
“You can keep it, if you want to,” Rapunzel said. I couldn’t tell if she was serious, or if she was teasing me. I felt ashamed of myself, making so much out of a ball of hair.
“Listen!” Rapunzel said.
“It’s started to rain,” I said.
“No—there’s something else.”
She was right, there was another sound, a faint rumbling from far off. At first I thought it was thunder, but the sound was too steady to be thunder – more like an approaching train.
“My father is coming home,” Rapunzel said.
I looked out of the window into the blackness. I could see nothing – but the rumble of John Poor and his posse was getting louder. I barely noticed the rain falling on my head. I knew that if her father caught me here, I would be banished forever (if I survived the curses and the beating), and I would never see Rapunzel again.
“Throw your hair out of the window, Rapunzel,” I said.
“It’s raining. My hair will get wet.”
“This is no time for vanity.”
“I mean, it’ll get wet, and you won’t be able to hold on. You’ll fall to your death for sure.”
I knew she was right, but what could I do?
“Where does that door go?” I asked.
“To the nine flights of stairs whose landings are guarded by the schizophrenic alarm clockwork watch dogs.”
“To the cold and rusty iron door that leads to the world outside my Ivorine tower.”
I grabbed my hat with one hand, and put Rapunzel’s ball of hair under my arm. I twisted the knob on the door.
“Wait!” Rapunzel said. “Even if the dog is wagging his clockwork tail, he’ll tear your throat out if you don’t call him by name.”
I opened the door a crack. On the landing, I saw a small, cold, lonely, eccentric looking schizophrenic alarm clockwork watch dog. He was wagging his clockwork tail.
“That one is named ‘Pluto’”, Rapunzel whispered. “I hear my father call his name just before he opens the door. But I don’t know the names of any of the others.”
I gave Rapunzel a kiss and promised to see her again (“next time bring cabbage,” she whispered). I stepped onto Pluto’s landing, closing the door behind me. From a distance, Pluto looked like a Dalmatian, but as I got closer, I could see the spots on his white plastic hide were actually protrusions of oily gears, which turned in time with the swinging of his clockwork tail. When he saw me, he made a sound like someone had thrown a handful of sand into his works. His mouth was a modified printout shredder, and the teeth whirred into action.
“Good boy, Pluto,” I said. He licked my hand and sat down immediately, allowing me to pass.
The next landing was guarded by a giant blue dog. He wagged his clockwork tail slowly, waiting patiently for me to call him by name.
“Mr. Neptune, I presume!” I said, hopefully.
Neptune sat and allowed me to pass, as did Uranus, Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, Earth, and Venus. But Mercury, the small, hot, hard little dog on the bottom landing, was not wagging his clockwork tail. Foam was pouring out of his clockwork mouth between the gears and razor-sharp blades of his modified printout shredder. He smelled like rotten eggs. He didn’t look like an automaton you could reason with.
“Sit, Mercury,” I said, without conviction.
I heard the shredder switch on, and the rows of gears, spinning inwards, sucked some of the foam back into his mouth between the blades. I didn’t move. We stared at each other – or rather, I stared, and Mercury’s eyeballs careened wildly around in their sockets, each independently of the other. Mercury sprang for my throat. I thrust my hat into his mouth. The gears pulled 3X of my 4X genuine beaver hide Stetson through before the little dog jammed up. His shredder mouth switched into reverse, and he spit an X or two back out in strips before he jammed again. Then the overheat switch flipped, and Mercury collapsed on the floor, a hot and lifeless little schizophrenic alarm clockwork watch dog. It was a typical western tragedy – he was dead and my hat was ruined.
I pushed my way out into the night and the rain. I found Ginger by the light of her electric eyes and stuffed the ball of Rapunzel’s hair into my saddle bag. I rode out of sight just as John Poor and his posse pulled up to the Ivorine tower, and for the first time in a long time, I felt the sting of raindrops on my bald head.
Please note: Ivorine and SECUR are registered trademarks of Virgin Containment Systems International.
BIO: Jonathan Eaton grew up in Texas and moved to Oregon where he writes about Texas. He is old enough to have actually dialed a phone. He keeps track of The Cowboys and the mars landers. When he and his wife Cyndi are watching X-Files reruns, he listens for the bass clarinet riffs, because that’s how you know when trouble is coming. He is out of a job, and if it wasn’t for Obamacare, he wouldn’t have health insurance. When he was younger, he didn’t need glasses, but now he does. He is honest with his dentist about his flossing habits. He and his mother were once interrogated by Putin in East Berlin. He can throw a Frisbee farther than you can. He recently ate spittlebug spittle just to see what it tasted like. He owns the world’s foremost collection of movie-theater popcorn bags. If you give him a shovel and ask him to dig a hole, he will. He has taken to wearing two pairs of socks recently — no one knows why.