“When did you go bald?”

Only Clarice would ask such a forthright question.

“Leave her alone,” Jake drains his beer. Only he would dare contradict his sister.

The clock hands have gone from late at night to early in the morning. Jake’s bar is empty of customers. The staff, who are sitting round the table, fall silent, intent on their drinks.

“It’s okay,” Rapunzel says. “I was sick and it all fell out.”

Her scalp is shiny, every follicle devoid of life. Nor does she have any eyebrows. Or hair elsewhere for that matter.

“What colour was it?”

“Blonde.”

There’s a pause, then laughter.

Jake nudges her. “You’re a joker after all.”

She knows what he thinks of her. That she’s vague and evasive and hasn’t a clue what’s going on most of the time.

“Lucky you’re beautiful enough to be bald,” he adds.

Rapunzel touches the nape of her neck where she feels most exposed and tries not to smile.

Rapunzel brushes her hair. One hundred strokes to make it gleam. It’s easiest at night after her haircut, when it only reaches her neck. Static made it float.

Morning brushing’s a chore that makes her arm ache as her hair reaches to her knees. One hundred stokes and it falls like a sheet of silk.

“Real blonde hair.” Matilda touches it as though she still can’t believe it. “Women in the city use dye to get this colour but the chemicals turn their hair to straw.”

Rapunzel’s heard this a million times before. Natural blondes are on the brink of extinction. Red heads only exist in far flung corners of the world where people live in tribes.

“They’ll kill you out there if they ever see this. They’ll tear your hair out from the roots.” Rapunzel’s heard this before too. “Don’t be scared, my angel. I’ll always be here to protect you.”

The warehouses are in a seedy part of the city that’s been lifted by association with the rich bohemian crowd in the neighbouring district. The warehouses that were once used as doss houses are now bars, artists’ co-operatives and thrift stores. The old seamen’s church is a sex shop. A few drug dealers still hang around to provide both rich and poor a fix.

It’s not entirely safe but it’s better than it used to be. Stray too far from the busier streets is to risk a kicking. It gives the privileged a frisson of fear that they find delicious.

Rapunzel knows that all the punters in Jake’s bar look at her. She mimics Clarice’s toughness, missing their second glance. She’s attractive. Isn’t everyone, if only we learn how to use our eyes?

Rapunzel likes playing the piano best but like all the staff, she does everything from cleaning toilets to table service. Tonight she’s on the bar. Clarice presents her tray.

“Six beers for the posh boys in the booth.”

A young man gets up from this group and comes over. He’s shy away from his friends. They all dress down in a uniform of torn t-shirts and roughly chopped fringes, worn slightly too long.

“You slumming it, then?”

He flushes. Clarice is democratic with her insults. To his credit, he’s not put off. Rapunzel lays out the bottles on the tray and Clarice whisks it away.

“My name’s Adam.” He flicks his fringe out of his eyes. “What’s your name?”

“Rapunzel.” She says it under her breath, like it’s a line she’s been practising.

“I’ve heard you play the piano. You’re good. Where did you study?”

“Nowhere.” She busies herself, wiping down the bar. “I just had a lot of time to practise.”

Clarice comes back with her tray under her arm.

“Is Prince Charming here bothering you?”

Rapunzel lives in a suite of rooms in the mansion’s turret. Its windows are covered in metal lattices whose delicacy belie their strength. The door to the suite opens at the same time each day.

“Morning.”

Rapunzel, still in her nightgown, gets up and stretches. Matilda puts down the tray, goes back to the door to lock it and then pockets the key.

“Why do you do that?”

“What?”

“Lock us in.”

“I’ve told you lots of times. Safety. Suppose someone crept in while we were having breakfast? Now, we have fruit, toast and a special treat.”

“Wouldn’t it be safer if I was downstairs with you? I could help keep watch.”

Matilda lays out their repast. “A good idea but it’d be dangerous if someone saw you.”

“I could wear a headscarf.”

“There’s the beast to consider too.”

“Beast?”

“I’ve trained a huge hound. It only obeys me. I can’t risk it attacking you by mistake.”

“But…”

“It’s the safest way. It’ll protect you when I’m not here. Come and eat.”

The platter’s pattern is concealed by white fans of sliced apple and bright strawberries. The toast’s served in an antique rack and the butter in curls. The treat’s hot chocolate, so thick that the silver teaspoons stand up in it.

“Don’t forget your hair tonic.”

It’s a bitter concoction to aid hair health that Matilda brews with herbs from the garden.

Breakfast always ends the same way, Matilda clearing everything away and then locking Rapunzel in.

Alone in the tower, Rapunzel’s day is punctuated by markers. Cleaning, bathing, trimming her profuse body hair, an hour of piano practice, sketching and reading. She longs for Matilda’s company.

“Play for me.” Tired from a day in the vegetable garden, Matilda throws herself down in an armchair. She’s washed her hands and face, but Rapunzel pulls the leaves from Matilda’s fringe, humming. ”Play me something nice.”

Matilda wasn’t the most patient teacher but Rapunzel has had lots of time to practise. She knows all her sheet music by heart now, plus all the variations she’s composed. She picks a soothing tune and Matilda closes her eyes.

“My mother used to play that to us.” Her smile makes Rapunzel think it’s a treasured memory. The smile falters. “It’d break her heart to see this place now. There used to be servants and dances. People working the land.”

“What happened?”

“War. It tore through everything.” Her mouth turns down. “They hung my father from the gatehouse arch. I remember how the horses screamed as they were hacked to death.”

Matilda’s eyes snap open, as if she’s woken from a nightmare. “Enough of that. Time for your haircut.”

Matilda pulls the scissors from her apron pocket that contains multitudes. She inspects Rapunzel’s scalp and combs out her locks, looking for split ends. She binds it at the nape of Rapunzel’s neck and then again, a fraction lower and cuts between the two to lift away the golden rope. Her eyes are bright with desire.

Hair has a life cycle. Rapunzel’s is in a permanent, rapid anagen phase. Abnormally fast growth that means by morning it’s long again.

They stick together at Jake’s. Rapunzel envies the other girls’ robustness. She feels fragile and vulnerable by comparison. She starts lifting crates of bottles to try and build up her strength.

One night someone tries to rob them while they’re locking up. Peter comes out of the kitchen at first shout, swinging a meat cleaver. Jake goes for a pair of long knives that he keeps under the bar. The bouncers pull out axes. Clarice smashes the end from a bottle, beer spraying everywhere.

It’s complete overkill. It’s a stringy junkie chancing his arm but Rapunzel feels anger swelling up inside her. She doesn’t recognise it at first. It overrides thought and sense. She tackles him with an arm around his legs, which wouldn’t be very effective if he wasn’t high. She’s on her feet before he is. There’s a crack as one of his rib gives way under her boot. She can’t stop herself. She’s furious that someone can threaten all that she considers hers. She’s furious that’s she spent most of her life in a room playing the piano and washing her hair without questioning why. She’s furious at Matilda. She keeps on kicking until Peter lifts her away.

Jake squats beside him. “Listen, you little fucker, come in here again and I’ll let her have you.”

Rapunzel realises that Jake means her. The bouncers carry the man out to dump him at a distance.

Jake takes her aside.

“You need to learn how to throw a punch and how to take one. Clarice can teach you.”

Adrenaline makes her bold.

“No. You.”

Matilda puts a plate of stew down in front of her.

“Thank you, Mother.”

“Whatever made you say that?”

“I just thought…” Rapunzel shifts in her seat. “I mean, you talked about your mother. In my books there are mothers. Aren’t you mine?”

Matilda sits down. Rapunzel’s not sure if she’s angry or not.

“I didn’t give birth to you, if that’s what you mean.” She sounds stiff and defensive. “I’m the one who looks after you. I feed you. I care for you when you’re sick. I cut your hair. Isn’t that what a mother is?”

Rapunzel opens her mouth, then shuts it. Matilda’s not like the rosy cheeked, plump mothers in the illustrations. She’s tall and strong. Her fierceness over Rapunzel’s protection is absolute.

“Don’t you love me?” Matilda starts to cry.

Surprised by this reaction, so does Rapunzel.

“I love you. Of course I do. I’m sorry.”

“Your mother didn’t want you.” That makes Rapunzel flinch. Matilda softens it with, “I wanted you. I delivered you. I blew into your mouth to get you breathing. I was the first to hold you. You were covered in long blonde hairs. My little hairball.”

Her mother’s role in the event has been diminished.

“What was she like?”

Her persistence makes Matilda frown but she answers the question.

“Dirt poor and drugged up. I’m not sure how found her way this far. She got into the garden before I’d finished repairing the wall. She was eating my lamb’s lettuce.”

When Rapunzel stands on a chair she can see the garden from her window; the vegetable plot, the orchard and then the wall.

“I could help you in the garden. Or with the chickens,” Rapunzel says hopefully, even though she knows what the answer will be.

Rapunzel’s sat at her desk, loose hair draped over her shoulders like a cape, sketching Matilda from memory. She clutches her pencil like it’s a weapon when the door swings open. It’s far too early in the afternoon for Matilda to visit.

It’s a young man. Full lipped with short, brown hair. His clothes are faded and shabby. He doesn’t look like a prince. More like a handsome, undernourished wolf.

“Have you come to rape and kill me?”

“No!” He holds up both hands, dropping the pillow case he’s carrying. Rapunzel recognises the embroidered monogram as Matilda’s. The silver cutlery within spills out. “Sorry,” he adds, like a guilty child.

“The door was locked. How did you get in?”

“It’s a skill. My Dad used to say I had keys instead of fingernails.” He waves his fingers as if demonstrating this peculiarity. “I won’t hurt you. I promise. And I’ll put all these back.”

“Matilda will be angry if you don’t.”

“Tall woman? She’s gone out. I watched her ride off.” He reaches for her hair. “Is it real?”

Rapunzel’s mute, frightened to admit it, even though the evidence is on her head. He gently tugs at a strand which comes away.

“Ouch.”

“Sorry.” He holds the gold filament up the light. “It is real. I’ve never seen hair this colour before. Not natural, except on a wig once.”

Rapunzel’s equally fascinated. She’s never seen a man before. The men in Rapunzel’s books are creatures to fall in love with. As mythical as unicorns, Matilda said. They’re not like that anymore. They’re all monsters.

“Are you a prisoner? Why are you locked up?”

“I live here.”

“Who with?”

“Just Matilda.” She holds up her sketch. “You can meet her.” She’ll see that not all men are monsters after all.

“I don’t think that’s such a good idea. What’s your name?”

“Rapunzel.”

“I’m Billy.”

She pours him a glass of water and gives him an apple.

“Your hair’s the colour of chocolate.” The idea makes Rapunzel smile.

“Chocolate?” he laughs. “That’s only for rich people.”

Am I rich? Rapunzel thinks.

“Here?” She opens the drawer and takes out a tiny parcel, tied with string.

“Take it.”

He unwrapped the paper to find a square of chocolate inside. She savours the moment when his lips part and he puts it in his mouth. His eyelids flutter with the shock of such sweetness. A dimple appears in his cheek.

“I should go. Before your friend comes back.”

“Will you come back and see me?”

“Do you want me to? I’d like that but you have to promise me you won’t tell.”

Rapunzel’s never had a secret before. Waiting for Billy makes the days longer.

“Be careful of the beast.”

“What?”

“A hound that Matilda’s trained to attack.”

“I’ve never seen an animal in here.”

She leans over and pulls a bramble from his hair. They both laugh. His confidence diminishes her fear.

“I’ve been sleeping under hedgerows outside the walls, waiting for Matilda to leave.”

“Where does she go?”

“Towards the city.”

Rapunzel puts the bramble in a pewter dish. Billy wanders around the room.

“It’s so beautiful here. Peaceful. What are these for?”

“They’re grape scissors,” she explains as he inspects the ornate handles. “For cutting grapes with.”

“What are grapes?”

“I don’t know.”

He looks at everything. The paintings and the tapestries, the books, even though he can’t read. The porcelain fascinates him the most. He holds up a teacup that’s so fine that it glows translucent in the light.

“It’s so delicate.”

The way he says it makes her want to cry. His soul craves beauty.

“I used to talk to them.”

His look is a question.

“The cups. The pictures. Matilda says they’re precious. I talked to them when I felt lonely.”

“Talk to me.”

They talk all afternoon. He tells her about the city. The alleyways where he grew up, the riches and poverty. Rapunzel doesn’t mention the haircuts and keeps her hair bound in a loose net so that Billy can’t see it growing. She’s not ready for that yet.

“Come away with me.”

“I can’t. I can’t leave.”

Matilda’s lied to her. Billy isn’t a hairy rampaging brute. He reaches out for her hand.

“Come outside then. Just for a little while. Come and stand beneath the trees. They’re lovely.”

“I can’t.” I’m afraid.

Rapunzel’s never left her rooms.

The staff at Jake’s live in. Frank and John (twins and bouncers) and Peter (cook) have the first floor. Jake sleeps in his office behind the bar. The second floor belongs to the woman- Clarice, Sienna, Marta, Mary and Rapunzel. The long rooms once stored sacks of grain but now there are rows of beds. Doors are hinged together to make folding screen when privacy’s required. When Rapunzel’s talent for painting is discovered they make her decorate the walls, great murals of fantastic animals from her memory of the picture books she grew up with. Unicorns, griffins and lions that earn her a burst of applause.

Everything’s up for grabs. Marta emerges with a shirt that Sienna made, wearing it as a dress. There’ll be a spat over a necklace or a set of bangles but it never lasts long.

Rapunzel loves the communality. Of waking to the sounds of others’ breathing, footsteps, farts and laughter. Best of all, here a cup is just a cup. Rough-hewn and functional. Objects have their rightful place. How utterly proper.

“Are you eating, poppet?”

“Yes, why?”

“You look like you’re losing weight. Are you eating all the food you’re saving for snacks?”

When Rapunzel refused food as a child, Matilda would slap her legs. After the war we starved. I’ll never starve again. You’ll not leave a morsel, do you hear?

“Yes, I eat everything.”

She’s been saving the food for Billy. She thinks of him, huddled under a bush somewhere. At least she can give him something to eat for the days he’s got to wait to see her.

Rapunzel sits at the piano and plays. She doesn’t see Matilda pick up the pewter bowl, frowning when she sees the dried bramble in it.

“I’ve seen hair your colour in the city wigmaker’s. They’re very expensive.”

“Really?”

“Rapunzel,” Billy pauses, “will you let your hair down?”

Billy’s request makes her feels shy, as if he’s asking her to take her clothes off. She wants to, though. She undoes the hair net and takes out the clips, like a queen removing her crown. He puts his hands in it, so it spills through her fingers, then buries his face in it.

She can’t remember who kissed whom first. Kissing is a revelation. She pulls his head over his shirt. He unbuttons her dress.

“I don’t know what to do. Show me.”

He puts his fingers between her legs, as his mouth covers hers. She pushes him off and kneels over him, examining him as much as he examines her. It hurts, taking him in, but it’s nice too.

Rapunzel lies facing him, their arms draped over one another. She strokes his skin. Their breathing slows. Sleep comes to the sated. Neither of them hear the door open. Matilda’s oiled the lock and hinges.

Rapunzel wakes with a start. Her face is wet and she wipes her face, wondering why she’s been crying in her sleep. Her palm is red.

The axe bites again, deep into Billy’s head and neck. His arms flail, a useless reflex. Rapunzel’s heels kick against the floorboards. His wound is spraying blood in ever weakening arcs. His body jerks and shakes, then settles into dead stillness.

“What did he do to you?” Matilda shakes her by the shoulders. “What did you let him do?”

Matilda looms over her, blood splattered and panting. Rapunzel tries to cover herself. Matilda’s seen her naked before, having bathed her as a child. She’s not a child anymore. She can’t stop shaking. She doesn’t realise that she’s rocking, arms around herself, or that she’s sat in a puddle of her own urine. All she can do is stare as Matilda wraps Billy in a sheet and drags him from the room.

When she finally finds her feet, she stands on a chair and looks out to where Matilda’s burying Billy under the lovely trees.

Rapunzel remembers sex. She lies in the quiet nights, scar itching, listening to assignations arranged for when everyone should be asleep. There are quick gasps and low moans. If you want to be noisy, find somewhere else.

She remembers how ridiculous and magnificent sex is. That such moments are meant to be fleeting or else she’d be paralysed forever, driven to madness if they remained so vivid.

She wants to have sex with Jake. To push him down, to lie with him, to feel it all again. Her want is born from a knowledge that’s given her new eyes. She imagines his long fingers on her. When he taught her to fight, the tension and concentration in him when he dropped into a fighting stance made her shiver. His topknot and beard makes him look older and he treats all the staff like family when they’ve earned his trust.

This desire makes her feel guilty and she question what she felt for Billy. She’s ashamed that she doesn’t know if she loved him or not. And the one person she knows she loved is Matilda, the woman who killed him.

Four months of silence follows. What was once between them is broken. Rapunzel refuses to get out of bed, turning her face to the wall. She defaces the paintings, smashes the porcelain and bends the tines of the pastry forks. Matilda looks at the defaced relics of her past and weeps.

When Matilda drags her to the table, Rapunzel refuses to eat. She refuses to wash her hair, which has become matted and tangled. Matilda beats her and then throws her in the tin bath, which gets tipped over in the struggle.

“Do you want us to starve?” Matilda cries. “Is that it?”

Rapunzel loses weight. Her cotton dresses, once snug on the arms, are now loose but strangely the same dresses are tight around her middle.

Once afternoon she falls asleep wearing a thin cotton nightgown. It’s a hot, muggy day. She woken by a gentle hand on her shoulder. Matilda’s sat on the edge of her bed.

“Your periods have stopped, haven’t they?”

“Yes.” Rapunzel eyes her with suspicion, wondering what that means.

“You’re pregnant.” Matilda’s face softens. “You’re going to have a baby.”

Billy’s baby. Her baby. She doesn’t know if her heart beat’s propelled by fear or elation. She’s glad she’s lying down because her legs feel like water.

“Don’t be scared,” Matilda strokes her hair. “I’ll look after you both. We’ll put all this behind us. You’ll have the best of everything. I’ll bring the crib down from the attic. We’ll make baby clothes together.”

Matilda puts an arm around.

“Child rearing’s difficult. You were such a fussy child, up all night worrying at the breast.” She finishes with, “I wonder if the baby will be blonde?”

Rapunzel only realises how much she’s been chewing and sucking on her hair when she tries to stop. She’s teasing out the knots with a comb when Matilda comes in. The woman glances at her, but Rapunzel doesn’t smile. Go slowly. She has to believe you.

She puts the comb down.

“I’ll never forgive you for what you did but it’s not about us anymore. I need you. You need me. It’s us against the world. I want a safe life for my child.”

Matilda has the grace to look chastised.

Rapunzel gobbles up the creamy porridge that Matilda’s brought her. There’s an amber pool of honey floating in it.

“I’m hungry. Bring me another. And the sewing basket. We’re going to have to let my clothes out.”

The door stays locked despite the newly forged truce.

Rapunzel gorges over the following months while she plans. She has to sit on her hands to stop the compulsive hair pulling. It grows in thick, unruly waves.

One night, when Matilda comes up for her nightly cut, Rapunzel’s waiting behind the door. She hits Matilda with a marble paperweight. The woman falls to her knees and Rapunzel hits her again, at the base of the neck. She pitches forward. Rapunzel kneels beside her. She’s still breathing.

Rapunzel rolls on onto her side and fishes out the scissors from her apron pocket. The keys are where she dropped them. She fumbles and shakes, afraid that Matilda will wake up at any moment.

She’s stitched a sack from one of her old dresses and filled it with whatever she thinks is of value that she hasn’t destroyed. All she has to go on is Billy’s wonderment, so there’s a set of miniature mechanical toys, silk handkerchiefs, a pearl necklace and a painted fan. Also, some chocolate and apples.

Then she steps outside the chambers that have contained her for the last sixteen years. There’s no time to consider it. She locks Matilda in and then she does something she’s never done before. She cuts her own hair, as short as she can. She covers the clumsy tufts with a scarf and pockets the scissors. She’ll need them to keep her hair short so she can cover it.

“Rapunzel.” There’s a low moan from the other side of the door. “Let me out.”

Rapunzel freezes. She holds a breath. A reflex.

“Help me. Please. I’m hurt. I’m bleeding.”

Rapunzel covers her mouth with both hands. She hadn’t expected it to feel like this. The door handle rattles.

“I know you’re there. Open the door.”

A sob escapes from Rapunzel’s lips.

“Open the door-” Matilda sounds sharper “-and I’ll forgive you.”

The door shakes under Matilda’s hammering fist.

“Let me out, you ungrateful bitch. The hound will find you. It’ll rip your throat out.”

Rapunzel shrinks back from the sudden venom.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it. Let me out. I’ll die in here otherwise.”

Rapunzel’s legs quiver as Matilda’s voice follows her down the corridor.

“You might think that boy of yours was nice but you won’t survive out there. They’re wolves, every single one.”

Matilda howls. She sounds, Rapunzel thinks, like a beast- uncomprehending and wounded at her betrayal

The rest of the house might as well be a foreign country. It’s a silent, grand hovel. Light filters through grimy windows and the carpets are worn through. The furniture is a feast for woodworms, the silk wallpaper stained by archaic floods, the pattern lost to mould.

It’s clear that Matilda has kept her most precious things in the tower.

Rapunzel doesn’t linger. She follows the grand sweeping bannister downwards, treading lightly, brandishing the scissors in case the beast attacks. The kitchen is at the back of the house. The fire’s burning low. Beside it is a straw pallet covered in blankets. The worktops are clear but the kitchen tablet is piled with junk. Rapunzel goes through the larder, taking a ham and a loaf.

Then she sees the heavy manacles fixed to the kitchen’s far wall. Their height from the floor suggests a sizeable beast. Rapunzel fumbles with the keys, trying one, dropping the bunch, retrieving it and then trying another, all the time imagining some giant, vicious dog. She opens it and darts into the yard.

The bright day floors her. She’s unprepared for the world in more ways than one. She crumples under its vastness. Her heart works double time. She gets to her feet, despite the dizziness.

She remembers what Billy told her about the way out; through Matilda’s immaculate garden with its rows of lettuces, courgettes and raspberry canes. She heads for the trees, stopping at the plot where the grass has started to grow back. She looks up through the lattice of branches. Billy was right, she thinks, the trees are lovely. She’s glad he has this view.

After a thorny negotiation with the brambles, Rapunzel finds the hole in the wall. It doesn’t occur to her to go through the main gate. She has the keys. Nor does it occur to her to stay.

One of Clarice’s friends comes into the bar. They sit together in a corner, the woman holding a baby to her full breast. The baby roots, searching for the nipple. A mother, equipped to feed her child. Rapunzel’s understanding is instinctive. The body prepares itself.

Matilda’s words come back to her like a bolt. The clues assemble themselves. She curses herself as an idiot.

You were such a fussy feeder, up all night worrying at the breast.

The iron collar and chains in the kitchen. There’d never been a hound, just a woman that Matilda had treated like an animal. Was her mother buried near Billy, beneath the trees?

It’s a long walk under an open sky which presses down on her when she dares to look up at it. She wishes for boots like Matilda’s when her feet blister and bleed. She shelters under bushes by night, pulling her shawl around her.

Finally she sees an unnatural skyline. The expanse of city comes to her in growing detail; the outline of towers, sunlight flashing on a row of windows.

The abdominal pains start as she passes under the great arch. She’s ignored the grumbling but now it’s a rising colic. So it is that she arrives, between a shiver and a sweat, clutching her stomach.

Pain makes mincemeat of her. Sweat runs from her face and drops from her chin. She’s on her knees, trying not to cry out. People crowd around her. Someone puts a hand on her shoulder and lifts off the woollen shawl. Light fingers relieve her of her makeshift bag.

“Matilda,” she says, a reflex, and then she blacks out.

The world returns to Rapunzel in fleeting pieces. First bright lights and then a masked face. When she tries to sit up, she’s pushed back down, firmly but gently. She’s tethered by a tube in her arm, from her abdomen and between her legs.

A man’s face looms into view. He pulls down the paper mask to reveal a crooked grin.

“Hello, Sweetie.” The smile widens. “What’s your name?”

“Rapunzel.”

“Never heard that one before.”

She reaches up to her face. She has a mask on too.

“Leave that on. It’s oxygen.”

“Oxygen?”

“Just breathe it in, darling, breathe it in.”

When she next wakes, Rapunzel feels like she’s floating and her mouth is dry. The tube going into her arm carries red fluid from a flabby bag on a stand. She turns her head to see a woman beside her, writing in a file. Her skin’s black, a contrast to the vivid green of her dress. In her stupor, Rapunzel thinks, Beautiful.

“Is that blood?”

The woman’s head jerks up. She’s much older than Rapunzel first thought.

“Yes, to replace some of what you lost.” She puts her pen in the top pocket of the dress. “I’m Dr Ellard, your surgeon. I’ve come to talk to you about the operation.”

“Operation?”

“Yes, you’re in Seven Sisters’ Hospital. My colleague over at the Mission Clinic called me and asked me if I’d see you as you’d been taken there after you collapsed. You’re very fortunate. If I hadn’t owed him a favour, you’d be dead now.”

Rapunzel lifts her sheet. She’s a mass of dressings. The tube from between her legs carries urine into a bag on a stand. The one from her abdomen is more shocking, having breached the integrity of her skin, carry pus and blood from the unnatural orifice to yet another bag.

“Are you in pain?”

Rapunzel nods.

“I’ll get the nurse to bring you something.”

“What about my baby?”

Rapunzel guesses that Dr Ellard isn’t surprised very often because she struggles to hide it.

“You thought you were pregnant?”

“Yes, my periods stopped. My belly swelled.”

Dr Ellard shakes her head. A tear rolls down Rapunzel’s cheek.

“I’m sorry.” The surgeon touches her arm. “You definitely weren’t pregnant.”

“No baby?”

“No. You’ve been chewing your hair, haven’t you? We removed a giant hairball from your stomach. A trichobezoar. The tail end went into your small intestine. It nearly killed you.”

Rapunzel only registers several words. Hairball. Stomach. Killed.

“Rapunzel, there’s one other thing.”

What else could there possibly be?

Alopecia totalis. Rapunzel’s body, shocked and insulted by illness and intervention, has shed every single hair.

The abdominal drain, the catheter and drip are disconnected. Rapunzel, untethered, is free to roam the ward. She stands in the communal bathroom once the other women are in bed and looks at her broken image in the cracked mirror.

Her armpits are smooth caverns. There are no eyebrows to frame her face. The lack of pubic hair makes her feel childish and shy. She puts her hand to her shiny, vulnerable scalp.

Rapunzel peels back her dressing to look at her long scar. It’s an angry, heaped up ridge. It doesn’t matter that it’s ugly. That’s only vanity. She puts her hands on her flat abdomen. She’s been emptied of everything.

The man’s ten minutes late for their appointment. He stoops to hide his height, which makes him looks older.

“I’m Jimmy. I work for Social Care. I’ve been assigned to you.”

“Social Care?”

“I work with people who are about to leave hospital but still need help.”

“Oh.” She’s not thought about what’ll happen next.

“Where are you from Rapunzel? Do you have family I can contact?”

She shakes her head.

“That’s ok. The nurses say you like to read. I’ve bought some things to look at. You must get bored in here.”

Jimmy pulls some newspapers from his bag and starts to flick through them, pointing at things and chatting to her about them. They’re not like her beautiful books. The paper’s coarse and the print’s ugly. He puts her at her ease though. After about twenty minutes he surprises her with, “You’re not from here are you? I think you’ve not been around many people at all.”

She’s not sure if she’s unhappy or grateful that this gawky, bowed man has observed her every reaction to his chatter and divined her with a few seemingly casual questions. He hasn’t once opened the file with her name on it, like everyone else does. He’s read it all and remembered.

“Who’s been looking after you all these years?”

She shakes her head. He nods in response, respecting her silence.

“Rapunzel, I’ve got to ask you this and if you’d rather speak to a woman, I’ll try and find you one.” He clears his throat. “You thought you were pregnant. Has anyone hurt you?”

“No,” it comes out more forcefully than she intends. It’s only later that she ponders notions of hurt.

They lapse into silence. She likes that he doesn’t gabble and gives her a chance to speak but when she doesn’t, “You’re a celebrity. Dr Ellard’s persuaded the hospital board to waive the fee for all your care. Most people would’ve be out on the street by now.”

There had been a different kind of fee. Dr Ellard had taken her to the hospital lecture hall on several occasions. Rapunzel had been a live specimen, her pickled hairball beside her. She couldn’t bear to look at it, imagining it growing inside her. The doctors all commented on her being a natural blonde. At the end of the first session, Dr Ellard stood up and said, I intend to call this phenomenon Rapunzel Syndrome.

“Yes, Dr Ellard’s been kind to me.”

“There’s something else we need to talk about. You’re due for discharge soon. I’ve applied for a place at a charity safe house for a few months. They’ll teach you some of what you need to learn to survive. What can you do?”

“Play piano. Paint. I want to work. To look after myself.”

“Good, because there’s no other choice.”

It’s harder to sit alone in a room now that Rapunzel knows there’s a teeming world outside. The room at The Sisters of the Melancholic Heart is a plain white cell with a bed.

“I’m sorry.” Jimmy’s shrug is apologetic and weary. “It’s the best I could find.”

She learns quickly, of money, of cooking. The food is terrible. There are regular power cuts and candles are precious. She starts helping the staff with the motley collection in their care; a woman with a jagged scar across her forehead (a victim of assault), a man picking at imagined creatures on his skin, another’s had both legs amputated. At first she’s scared by these unmanned souls.

Jimmy drops in when he can. He brings her a map with the no-go areas marked in red.

“You need to start going out. Look for work. You’ve not much time left. The staff at the hospital have had a whip round. There’s enough for a few weeks rent. I can help you find somewhere.”

So much for Matilda’s savage world.

Rapunzel finds the sheer number of people that she sees on the street staggering, as well as their plethora of sizes, colours and shapes. In her books all she saw were pale princesses and manly princes.

The city itself is a revelation. From its towers to its tenements. She looks at dresses in shop windows on the grand avenues before she’s moved on. There’s the smell of frying onions from a cart. Sewerage from an open drain. She goes into a church, lured by a choir who clap and sway, but she struggles with the concept of God. The sound contrasts with the crowd that gathers to watch a fistfight.

One day she ventures into the crafts quarter, where the skilled and handy ply their trade. There’s a sign that says CITY WIGMAKER. It has a small window, covered by bars. Rapunzel stands, open mouthed. A single wig is on display. It’s long and blonde, falling in waves. People stop and look at it. She waits until she’s alone and then rings the bell. She keeps on ringing until she hears footsteps. The grille in the door snaps open and an annoyed face looks out.

“Appointment only. What do you want?”

“I want to see the wig.” She points towards the window.

“No chance.” The man snickers. “You look like you need one though. Go to Marling Street. You might be able to afford them. They cut hair from corpses, cheap bastards.”

“I want to look at that one.”

“You can’t afford it. It’s pure, natural blonde. I don’t want your sort here. Piss off.”

“Where did you get the hair? Matilda?” It’s been such a long time since she’s said the name aloud.

“You know Matilda?” His face is transformed. “Where has she been? Do you know how to find her?”

So, her curse had been a wigmaker’s dream. How he must’ve rubbed his hands when Matilda opened her bag. Rapunzel, the goose, forever laying golden eggs.

The wigmaker flings the door open but it’s too late. Rapunzel’s covered her head and has mingled with the crowd. His voice follows her up the street.

“Can you get a message to Matilda? Please, come back. You can try the wig on. Just tell Matilda I need more hair!”

Rapunzel passes an open warehouse door in the old shipping district. The tables are made from packing crates and the chairs are mismatched. There’s a man behind the bar putting bottles on the shelves. His black hair is swept up in a topknot and he has a beard. He looks up and sees her, tilting his head. That decides her. She goes in.

“I need a job.”

Loud, harsh laughter makes her turn around. Rapunzel missed the woman sweeping the floor.

“Clarice,” the man growls.

Rapunzel can’t stop staring at Clarice’s hair. Blue-black and cut into fearsome spikes around her face, with a heavy fringe.

“What are you looking at?” the woman snarls.

“Your hair. It’s beautiful.”

Rapunzel catches sight of her own reflection the mirror behind the bar. The mixture of innocence and stupidity makes her blush.

Clarice throws down her mop and goes through the door at the back.

“Fuck, I thought I was going to have to get between you. My sister’s a firecracker. Hey, I’m Jake. What can you do?”

“I can play that.” Rapunzel points to the upright piano.

“It’s junk. I keep meaning to chop it up for firewood.”

She lifts the lid and touches a key. It makes a sour note.

“I can tune this.”

She runs her fingers along the keyboard, demonstrating her skill.

“What’s your name?”

“Rapunzel.”

Clarice comes out, carrying a plate which she puts down in front of Rapunzel.

“You look hungry. Eat this, sweetie.”

“She can play the piano.” Jake raises an eyebrow at Clarice.

“She’s adorable. I think we should keep her.”

“Hey, your hair’s growing back.” It’s Jake that notices first.

It comes in as a slow creeping stubble that begins as a dark fuzz. Rapunzel likes to run her hand over it, the blunt ends tickling her palm. Oh, the myth of sensuality and long hair. Rapunzel likes it short. It makes her feel strong.

The best bit is the colour. A glorious shade of mousey brown.

Originally published in Interzone.

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Priya Sharma
Priya Sharma’s short fiction has appeared in venues like Interzone, Black Static and Tor.com. Her work has been reprinted in various “Best of” anthologies. She is a Shirley Jackson Award finalist and a British Fantasy Award winner for her story "Fabulous Beasts." She has original work out in 2017 in "Black Feathers" (an anthology of avian horror) and "Mad Hatters and March Hares" (fantasy inspired by "Alice in Wonderland"). More info can be found at priyasharmafiction.wordpress.com