Yes, of course it hurts when buds burst.
Why, otherwise, would spring hesitate?
Why would all our hot longing
be bound up in the frozen bitter pallor?
Perhaps you look like a rat’s arse wasn’t the best opener, but come on, Harrow. You have to admit it was true.
You did look like a rat’s arse. I knew, without wanting to, that your personal care regime consisted of two bowls of water—one soapy, one plain—and a rough cloth. You had no paint, and so you painted your face with your own blood everyday which—creepy, but sure, whatever. Fine. Not like you ever left the house. And like, yeah, I wasn’t exactly one to talk, not least because I patently had fuck-all idea of how to talk to you. Back then I wasn’t much better than you (although I lacked all your issues with warm water and nice things), but the thing is: you were clearly miserable.
I knew you hated your face being seen by just anyone and everyone, even if ‘anyone and everyone’ in this case was mostly Pal and Cam, with occasional visits from Judith, Corona and the other Tridentarius. So that was one source of misery. The other, bigger, source of misery, was your hair. It was plain you did not know what to do with it, and had not known for an inordinately long time. Every now and again you took a blade to it, but you didn’t have the right tools and you were far too frustrated. It always ended up looking just as much a mess as it had before you’d commenced your massacre, and in three or four days it seemed just as much an unruly mop as it had ever been.
You hated that any part of your body might not bow entirely to you will; you hated that you were less well-composed than literally anybody else in the building; you hated the smell.
And I was stuck there—I don’t need to explain how, you know exactly how—hating it all with you. And so I walked up to you and said something to you which, upon reflection, I could have perhaps said differently.
The worst of it was that you didn’t even get angry at me. You didn’t get upset, not properly. You never did, anymore. You were all give, and I didn’t know what to do with what you were giving me. You said “I am sorry,” and inside you doubled down on the self-hatred, which I couldn’t stand.
“Don’t be sorry, Harrow. Just—.”
Thing was, I had been there. You know I had. You’d witnessed it, probably more than once.
“Can I sit?” I didn’t really feel right asking you for things, because you always said yes these days, but it would have felt worse sitting without your permission, worse still to stand over you.
“It came out wrong,” I said finally. “It’s true, you shitty little gremlin, you look like a rat’s arse, but I don’t care. You care.”
You were very silent. I was clearly going to have to do this all by myself, which sucked. I didn’t want to. I didn’t know how to. Not that you knew any more than I did, but being crap at this together would have been a hell of a lot better than being crap at this on my own.
“So like, let me help. I—Cam taught me how to use a razor so I can, I mean, if you want, I can cut your hair?”
There was another long and mournful silence. I hated it, Harrow. I hated to hear you so silent. When we got you back, you were just so fucking sad. And you had never stopped being that. Never stopped being the terribly sad shadow of the evil bone nun you once were and should still be. Sometimes I could feel something else off you. Just a spike of anger or, like, a sprinkling of frustration. Indignation, maybe righteousness. But these feelings never lasted long. Your sadness ballooned up inside of you, all bloated and awful, and it didn’t leave room for anything else. You felt terrible Harrow, is what I’m trying to say. I couldn’t do anything properly because how could I, when you were feeling so terrible and I wasn’t doing a single thing about it?
So I’d asked Cam to show me how to use the wicked sharp razor she used for Pal. I’d practiced on my own hair because I wasn’t about to go and make things worse for you. Didn’t want to slip and cut you. (I slipped and cut myself a few times. Sorry about that. I know you felt those too. I got the worry and terror off you every single time, and I would desperately try to project don’t worry, mistress of misery, I’ve got this shit on lock at you, but I don’t know how well that really worked. I was never very good at the Lyctor bit.)
“I promise I won’t cut you,” I added after a moment. “I’ve been practising.”
Harrow. You cried. I was not prepared for you to cry. I was not prepared for you to start bawling at me like a baby, which I guess was my own fault. I didn’t know what to do. I had no fucking clue what on earth I could do. I wanted to hold you. I wanted to take you in my arms every time you cried. I wanted you to use my body as your shield, I wanted to stop you from being swallowed up by how terrible everything was, but I knew if I asked that you would say yes, and I knew that I couldn’t trust that yes in the slightest.
I went away. I spoke to Cam. She called in reinforcements. I practiced some more. I came back.
I knew part of the problem was to do with the bath tub. There was this weird little plex tube you could attach to the taps, to turn the bath into a shower, but it didn’t stop your complete and absolute horror of being in a bath, and also one side would always pop off and you ended up with scalded feet and a freezing torso. Personally, I loved baths. I liked to run them hot (which you would have hated) and deep (which you would have hated even more). I could spend hours in the bath. Coronabeth and her sister taught me about bath salts which. Fucking hell, Harrow, I cannot begin to explain to you how good bath salts are. You would probably have hated them too, but fuck, Harrow. They were my shit. (Shitty McBackStabbyTits bought you some black salts, which would have been nice if it weren’t actually a bitch thing for her to do, being as she knew you hated baths. I’ve still got them, because they’re not mine to throw away, but I wish I could.)
But anyway. Sorry. I got side tracked.
I knew part of the problem was to do with the bath tub. The other problem was to do with your abominably shitty body. You had never done a single exercise in your entire life, which meant that you couldn’t find any configuration that let you wash your hair properly.
So the next time you tried to wash your hair, I interrupted.
I’m not proud of this, Harrow. You know that there are only a handful of things I’ve ever felt ashamed of. This is one of them.
I came in your room as you finished filling your terrible little bucket. (You had to do it jug by jug, Harrow. Do you know how embarrassing that was for me to know? That you had to wobble back and forth with these jugs of water that you could hardly lift? Harrow, those jugs barely weighed anything.) I could feel that little pinprick of confusion when you saw what was in my arms.
“Harrow,” I said. I couldn’t ask. I couldn’t. Because you would say yes, and it would break me. “Harrow, don’t say anything. I’m going to wash your hair.”
You didn’t say anything. I absolutely hated it.
I laid out my bundle on the floor. A cushion taken from the old sofa downstairs. A big, thick, black bathrobe, bigger and thicker and blacker than the one you had. (That one was from the twins. Also kind of dickish, but not as dickish as the salts.) Two fresh towels—I didn’t know when last yours had been cleaned and I wanted this to be perfect for you, Harrow. Some shampoo that literally smelt of absolutely nothing, and some conditioner which, same. I swear they sucked the flavour out of the air, that’s how bland they were. And then approximately fifty-three million combs.
“Okay. I’m going to need you to put on this robe and sit on the cushion for me. Great. Cool. Fab. It’s so weird when you just do what I say Harrow, you know that? No, don’t—don’t apologise, I just. You should know. Okay. Anyway.” I was babbling. You know I never could shut up when I needed to, and I was way too nervous and way too upset to be shutting up just then. I settled your stool behind you, and the bowl on the stool. This was one thousand million times better than your set-up, with the bowl on the table and you on the stool. You wouldn’t have to bend your neck as much this way.
Then I got behind you, and I set to work.
You were there, Harrow. You don’t need me to tell you that it took forever.
But it was nice. I mean, obviously I hated it. I hated that I was doing it without knowing that you wanted me to. I hated that you couldn’t do it yourself, not because I wouldn’t have done it otherwise, because I would do anything for you. But because you hated needing to rely on others. You still do, you awful little monster. Its terrible, and I love it.
I love you.
Anyway. Bit sappy there, sorry. You know, now, how much I like washing your hair. But neither of us knew it then, and I don’t think we could really handle it either. And even though I hated it, Harrow, it was good. It was so good. I took it really slow, because your hair was basically just one big old mat of grease and bone dust and dirt. I got it all in the water as best as I could without splashing it all over the place and made sure it was wet through. And then I started with the widest comb, detangling from the very tips up like Coronabeth had taught me. It was super gross, Harrow, and I vowed to never let it get that gross again. I got as much of the mat separated as I could before applying the shampoo. It looked like something Ocktakiseron would have used, and it made the air smell grey like his magic used to, but it worked. It helped loosen the leftover clumps so that I could go down a grade on the combs, and I could actually feel your hair. Your hair is so silky, Harrow. So soft. I’d never thought it could be so soft.
I worked my way up again with the smaller comb, and then another, even finer, comb. I wanted you to let me know if it hurt, if I pulled, and I asked you to tell me, but I couldn’t trust you to do so. I had to listen really hard through the link. Normally, Harrow, I was trying to get away from that thing. I used to get so caught up in you, I wouldn’t know where I was or what I was seeing. I wouldn’t always remember if I was me or you. You said it was similar for you, too, with me. We hadn’t figured out how to lock it down yet, when I washed your hair that very first time, but I'd gotten better at putting it to the side. Sinking back in felt like slipping into a hot, deep bath. I didn’t want to leave. I did want to carry on washing your hair, though. I had to pull back from you a bit to do that, pull back from your soul, and Harrow. Harrow, you didn’t want to let me go.
Do you know how hard it was to keep my hands steady? Do you know how hard it was for me to keep myself from pouring my whole entire soul into you again? The only thing—and I really mean the only thing, Harrow—that kept me from filling you up with me completely was the fact that I wouldn’t be able to wash your hair as well with your crappy noodle arms.
I hated it, but I’ve filled you plenty since, so I guess that’s okay.
You cried. You cried a ton. You were so still, for someone crying so much. I was scared you’d choke on your own snot. I know we don’t need to breathe but choking on your own snot because your hair’s getting washed? Very pathetic. Very gross. Very uncool. I may have said that to you at the time. I don’t really remember. I’m sorry if I did. I was crying, too.
I got you a bowl with clean water to rinse with, when I had shampooed and conditioned, and then I towelled your hair dry. You thought I was done, then. You started to get up. Okay, you tried. You were a jellified mess though, all slithery like, say, your small intestines falling out of a hole in your stomach. Zero structural integrity, Harrow. This is why I keep on telling you to do sit ups. Seriously. Just one.
I had to help you up onto the stool, and then I had to figure out how to keep you upright. I couldn’t just let you lean against me. The whole thing was already too intense.
This last bit, I learnt from Judith. That was weird, because anything to do with Judith was always weird. But still. She knew how to plait hair, and she taught me. This was definitely not the best plait I’d ever done. If Judith could have seen it, she might have cried. But I was still ridiculously proud, Harrow. I had been able to help you, for the first time in far, far too long.
“There,” I said when I was done, and I managed to bite down on the words now you almost look like a human again, which took a lot of effort. “Clean hair.”
“I thank you.”
“No, please. Don’t.”
You gave me an odd look, then, and I could feel your curiosity, but you didn’t question it. That was good, because I don’t think I could have explained. You just nodded and stayed silent.
I wanted to hold you again then, Harrow. I didn’t. But I sat by your side until your hair was completely dry, and it was a start.