"I am going to tie you up, Ba. If you want to have a haircut, Ill have to tie you up." She didnt resist while I circled around her with the shawl, weaving it between the chair backs rails and under her breasts, then tied it in a big knot between her shoulder blades. She sat as still as she could, nodding eagerly, following my hands with restless, glistening eyes.
"Better? Isnt it?" I asked my prisoner and took the scissors off the nightstand.
The first snap was a signal for her to continue the story.
"Fedor Mikhailovich would take all the money and gamble it away, and then he would come back for morebut there wasnt anyand pawn all of the good things only to gamble the money away. He gambled away her ring, her earrings, her shawl, and once even her shoes and her dress, so she couldnt even go shopping."
"What was the point in going shopping if hed already gambled away all the money?"
"Well, maybe she hoped to ask a nice salesman for credit, or just wanted to window-shop. . . . And when he came back, instead of apologizing he yelled at her for not fixing his supper on time!"
"Did she yell back at him?"
"Never! She apologized for not fixing supper. You see, she was a very good wife."
"All right, now shut your eyes."
I let her long bangs fall down on her forehead and snapped the scissors there, careful not to scratch the skin. It was easier to look at her when her eyes were closed. She looked relaxed, smoother, more alive, almost normal, until one sly, glistening eye opened under my snapping hand.
"Geniuses are a crazy lot. Theyre crazy like hell! You never know how to please them. You think that you do. You keep track of the things that please them. But they are fickle, they change their likings on a whim. You serve them tea with sugar and creamtheir favorite, and you had just gone out specially to buy that creamand they yell that they wanted coffee with lemon. You want to throw that tea into their red, ugly mugs and then break the cup against their head, but you dont do it. You apologize. And then when they come home drunk and in soiled pantsyes, they do that, they soil their pantsyou dont throw them out! You take them in, you undress them, you scrape the shit off them, and put them to bed. And after that you go to your communal bathroom to wash their pants. And its not an easy thing, I tell you, to wash shitty pants in a communal bathroom, with all the neighbors watching and yelling at you because of the stench! But you do it for them all the same."
"Do it for whom, Ba? Who soils their pants?"
Both eyes open at me like nimble animals lurking between the locks of hair, waiting to burn me with their sparks.
"Thats them, who do it! Them! Geniuses!"
So, okay, the geniuses are bad, I thought as I cut the rest of my grandmothers hair. She closed her eyes, hung her head down, and sat silently without movingvery convenient for chopping the hair on her crown. She must have been out of breath after her tirade.
So, Dostoevsky, a writer with different eyes, was a bad man. Geniuses are bad, and you have to wash their shit off, and that is probably it. That is what it takes to be a muse. There is not much else to it.
No, I wasnt a wise child. I didnt think about that until years later. Many years later.
When I cut my grandmothers hair, I was too preoccupied with making the layers even. Something had gone wrong in the middle of the process. It could be that my ten-year-old overconfidence let me down at some point. By the end of the session, my grandmothers hairdo consisted of rows of hair of various lengths encircling her head in various directions. I tried to even the hairs length but wound up cutting too close to the skin. When my grandmother raised her head and opened her eyes, there was nothing but yellow-white down fluttering on her bare scalp. With her neck thinned by the illness, and her beaky nose, she looked like a baby chick. A sick baby chick. An old and sick baby chick, if that was possible. An old and sick baby chick tied to a chair with a shawl. A large, hard lump rose in my throat, hurting me, making me want to hide, to escape. As if sensing my distress, my grandmother moved her neck from side to side and shook her head.
Excerpted from Memoirs of a Muse by Lara Vapnyar Copyright © 2006 by Lara Vapnyar. Excerpted by permission of Pantheon, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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