Science Fiction & Fantasy

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Fiction

Miss Beulah’s Braiding and Life Change Salon

The chime above my shop door rings.

It heralds a young woman wearing a head wrap boasting a network of silvery constellations on indigo, interspersed with the occasional yellow-gold moon. The wrap itself is made of silk—not the finest grade, mind you, but sufficient to conceal what she must see as a fault. None of her hair is visible, but the contorted celestial bodies show the fabric is at the end of its tether.

Her gaze flicks around, lighting on every little thing in my salon, then leaping away to the next. From the incense cone on the windowsill emitting apple and lily-scented curls of smoke, to the crisp, white sailcloth curtains snapping sharp in front of the open window. Then to the merry fire burning in the iron stove across from me that consumes all it is fed without giving off heat. Finally, her weary, heavy-lidded eyes settle on me.

I do not get up—we djinn do not like to move much, especially while in our solid forms—but I smile and motion to the styling chair in front of me. She stares at me for a short while, and while she does, I can hear her mind clicking like some clockwork toy, trying to make sense of what she sees. Her eyes get wider as they take me in, lightening the dark rings under them for a moment.

But she doesn’t run. She doesn’t scream. A good sign for a first-time client. After a deep breath, she walks with birdlike steps from the front door across the gleaming tiles and sits in my chair. She removes her head wrap with care, releasing her hair from its prison before folding the cloth into thirds and picking at a stray thread. Her gaze stays firmly in her lap.

And I know her struggle.

This poor thing takes a lot of time to try and keep this head of hair, but it resists her most valiant efforts. Every strand, every coil, is a blessing and a curse. Each lock must be cared for tenderly, not touched by brush, but eased apart with the wide teeth of an oil-soaked wooden comb and the caress of pomade-laced fingers, searching out each tangle and coaxing it free.

“What you getting today?” While I have an idea what she wants, I always ask. New clients tend to be nervous and get more wary when I seem to know too much. And even I am not right all of the time.

“I lost my job, Miss Beulah.” Her voice is a whisper of shame and her head tries to dip lower. But I lift it gently with my fingers under her chin.

“That ain’t always a bad thing, you know, doll.” I can never remember all of their names. Don’t even ask anymore. I used to try, thinking it made them feel better, but I realized they don’t much care what I call them. I know how to do their hair, I know how to design their dreams, and that is enough.

She chokes back sobs, swallows hard before speaking. “I can’t make it without a job. It’s not just me, I have a son—”

“You want it back or you want another job?” Any soul can see that isn’t her real trouble. Her pain is larger, deeper, born of powerlessness and fear. It is a pain that doesn’t leave, even in the midst of sleep, what little of it she is getting lately. Sad to say, if the return of her job is all she can ask for, then that is all I can give her. I am bound by the laws of my people as much as she is by hers.

She takes a while to think about this, and I run my fingers over and through her hair, massaging her scalp and her neck and shoulders until she slumps back in my chair.

“Whatever you think is best.” She sighs.

Her hair, a coarse, dusty brown, is dry and thinning, but her scalp is clean, free of dandruff and residue. She did what I asked and washed her hair before she came. The sharp scents of peppermint and sulfur cling to it and I wrinkle my nose.

As my fingers tumble through her tresses, I see she had worked hard at that job, tried to be what they wanted, but she had been fighting a losing battle. They had other plans from the start, and she was filling a space until they found the one they really wanted. But I also see the reason for her appointment. When I work the tangles from her coils, I smooth her hair back from her high forehead. It barely reaches her chin. Her ends are even, clipped neat.

“You cut it?” It comes out sharp, an accusation, and she responds as such.

“The other woman who was doing my hair said it needed a trim.” Her voice is defensive, a shield against further hurt. “Split, raggedy ends and all. Even some of the videos online say to get your ends trimmed to help it grow.”

Glad she can’t see my mouth as it twists, I return the soothing tone to my voice. “And it work for you?”

“No, not really.”

“Well, you here now.” I turn the swivel chair to the mirror. “Gonna be all right.”

Her eyes hold nervousness, flickers of fear, and a fragile hope. Under my fingers, her scalp feels feverish, damp. I smile to reassure her.

“You need to choose,” I say. “If you keep this style, you get your job back, but no more. All will go back to like before. That what you want?” Ask me, chile. That is the only way to get what you truly want. A little of it, anyway.

She trembles under my stroking fingers. “No,” she murmurs, only just louder than the crackle of the fire. Soon, I see tears on her cheeks, her neck. I feel their heat as they tumble, slide, drip from her chin onto the fabric cape I fastened around her neck.

“Then what?” I speak soft, tender, like to a fearful creature. And that she is. “You told me what happen to you, not what you want.”

She heaves the words through thickened breathing. “I want . . .” Deep gulps of incense-laced air. Finally, she speaks again. “I don’t want her to go. Not yet. I just need . . .” She swallows, picks at the faded violet varnish on her thumbnail. “A little more time.”

Her watery brown eyes meet all of mine in the mirror for a moment, then she becomes more interested in the stitching on her decent enough pocketbook.

“With your ma?” I prompt.

“Yes, ma’am. Just ’til Travis grows up.”

I look at her face, narrow determined chin, old soul eyes open wide. Her tremors ebb away until she is only listing slightly from side to side in the chair. Rocking herself to a calm.

“Okay,” I tell her, rat-tail comb in one hand, wide-toothed comb in another. “Let us make a change.” In another pair of hands, I take a jar of fluffy cream, my own blend—rich with seed oils and honey from bees drunk on shea tree pollen.

While I open the jar, I pat her shoulder. “You look nervous, chile.”

We are the only ones in the shop, as I never book more than one client at a time, even though I have multiples of everything—chairs, shampoo bowls, arms, hands . . .

“I’ve never had a . . . well, you know.” She doesn’t meet my eyes in the mirror this time and I suppress my chuckle.

“No, suppose not.” I appreciate her sensitivity in not calling me a genie. A captor’s term. I am the only jiniri —female djinn —in the Southeast with a beauty shop. For all I know, maybe even the entire country. Since the law freeing us was passed, many hide, especially those of us that look different. But I have chosen not to. What was once taken—my wishes—I now sell, for my benefit and for theirs.

With care, I part a section of her hair and clip the rest of it away while I apply my scented balm to her strands. They soak the nourishment up, and plump from their drink, bend easily. I twist, then braid, winding it into a rope-like plait.

“Want a magazine?” Two, three sections at a time—part, apply, braid, pin—now that she has voiced her desires.

She tries to shake her head, but my fingers tighten against her scalp and she winces. “No, I want to watch you work.”

I work on her for two hours, twisting and molding her hair into something new. Spirals and constellations on indigo. Once or twice, she almost falls asleep, but her forward movement wakes her. Each time, there is a second of fear in her eyes when she sees me looming over her. Six hands moving like dervishes through her hair and scalp. I am not offended. The third time, I ease her head back onto the neck rest of my chair and sleep spirits her away. She snores softly, with a light wheeze.

Trilling music sounds, muffled, distant. She stirs, sits up. Fumbles in her bag and puts a phone to her ear. I pretend to only hear one side of the conversation. “This is Teena . . . Yes? She is? Oh, thank God . . . No, no. I’ll be there. Thank you. Bye.”

My work on her hair is finished before she replaces the phone.

“Good news?”

Teena nods. Our gazes lock again and she gives me a hesitant, shaky smile. It is a start.

“All done.” I pat her shoulder.

Finally, she sees—really sees—her crown of glory. “Oh my God.”

She breathes the words as she touches the once-dusty hair, now darkened with moisture and healed with oil, with reverent fingers. The braids and twists glisten where they lay in intricate patterns against her fine head.

“This doesn’t even look like me.” She shoves the scarf into her pocketbook.

“Like it?” I recap the jar of balm, remove the crisp puffs of shed hair from both combs and throw them into the fire that constantly burns in my shop.

“I love it.” Teena pauses, clutches the bag to her chest. “H-h-have you taken your payment?”

“I have, thank you.”

Yes, I have eaten her nightmares. They were denser, richer than most I have tasted. Ones where she was being chased, where she was falling unceasingly, screaming into an indifferent night were deep with salty, meaty savor. The one where she was drowning, sweet and light as foam. After only a small portion, I was replete.

She nods and gets up from my chair. Anxious sweat has dampened her skirt until it clings to the backs of her thighs. She tugs it free. “I guess I’m all set, then.”

“Yes.”

Teena chews her lip then stops as if she’d had a lifetime of scolding about the habit. “How long will this last?”

I take pity on her and answer the question not asked. “If your ma starts feeling poorly again, make an appointment.” My eyes narrow at her, five slits of sharp focus, to ensure she is listening. “But you cannot wear this style forever. A time will come when you must accept that.”

At the door, she pauses, turns to look at me. Straight in the face this time with no dread or panic. “What do I say if someone asks me about my hair? About you?”

I am so full. My eyes grow heavy. I let them all close, one by one by one by one. “You tell them Miss Beulah does your hair.”

The chime above the door rings, letting me know she has left. I reach over and flip the switch that locks the front door. I have time for a nap before my next client. Time to weave my own dreams.

I yawn.

Plenty of time.

Eden Royce

Eden Royce is a Freshwater Geechee from Charleston, South Carolina, now living in the Garden of England. Her work can be found in various print and online publications including: The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & HorrorApex Magazine, Strange HorizonsFiyah Literary Magazine of Black Speculative Fiction, and PodCastle. She’s also a contributor to the Bram Stoker Award finalist anthology Sycorax’s Daughters. Her debut middle grade Southern Gothic novel Root Magic is scheduled for publication in January 2021 from Walden Pond Press/HarperCollins. Find her at edenroyce.com.