It is a hot Friday afternoon and my schedule is packed. Not the sort of packed that most people would consider important, but important all the same to me. I have three children coming home for a play date and family visiting with a special guest. Time flashes by and before I can gasp and pull my hair into a serviceable knot, four o’clock chimes and the house fills with excited voices.
Hot bodies melt into the brickwork of our home and children find nooks and crannies to occupy themselves whilst I prepare myself to meet my special guest. I can only guess at what she looks like and watch the time slow itself until it’s past the hour of five. The ring of my doorbell has the children squealing with excitement and me running for the door.
Everyone walks in and introductions are made. I smile and stand at a distance, everyone chattering at once, me watching her in awe. She has the softest skin, hair that fights any normal semblance of a hairstyle and delicate features etched with dark brows and pink lips.
I greet her softly, aware that she is a stranger in my home, totally unaware of how loud and boisterous my own children are dancing wildly around the kitchen. I don’t want to annoy her on her first visit and considering what I have been asked to accomplish, I take extra care in my conversation and approach. She has such dark intelligent eyes and looks on as we all catch up on family gossip, giggling and bustling about the kitchen and dining room. Her silence is taken as quiet consent to an age old ceremony that has been passed through generations. I myself don’t follow the faith of my family visiting, but understand that respect for other’s beliefs is important.
She accompanies me to the lounge where I show her pictures of my husband and children in different captured stages of happiness and we discuss the awful picture of my mother with two straggly dogs smiling for a moment in time! Soon we are called to the dinning room where the ceremony is to take place. It is five-thirty and we only have half an hour. How do I explain to this stranger that I will be shaving all her hair off? How do I broach the subject without rejection?
My sister-in-law asks me to start and I smile at my visitor, sitting so peacefully, so unaware of the trauma about to unfold. Her gentle hands rest on her lap and her head follows my movements as I test the hair cutter. She murmurs something I don’t quite get and I know it’s time.
With all the gentleness I can squeeze out of my body, I place a hand on her tiny, soft head and move the machine in methodical strokes, reassuring her that everything is okay. She doesn’t cry; she sits quietly as tendrils fall about her face. I shudder to think if I make a mistake. My body wants to break out into a cold sweat as I feel the coolness of her balding head. The quiet reticence of her pure and complete trust in me and the surrounding family not to hurt her steadies my hand.
Suddenly the machine’s battery struggles and splurges. I can feel the blades catching on her soft locks and my hand automatically lifts as far from her head as possible. I switch off the offending machine and hope it recharges quickly. Her mother quickly hands over the water cup and I pray she doesn’t dissolve into tears just yet. I still have half a head to shave!
With a prayer in my heart I start the machine again. It stutters to life and whirs. Phew! I gently place my hand on her balding dome and shave the left side with swift strokes. This time she is not so acquiescent and bubbles up her complaint with fists balling and her tiny nose scrunching up. Trying to ignore the panic emanating from her watching mother behind me, I motor through and manage to clean a path leaving a tuft of black hair at the back like a balding old man. She protests and another sip of water is offered. She takes it gladly.
I clear my nervous throat and ask again whether I have to make it a clean shave for it to be acceptable. Tearful nods from her nervous mother and anxious father mean I continue this difficult task. My sister-in-law sings a lullaby in her soft velvety voice, love and warmth pouring out to soothe this tired person sitting in her arms. My little visitor listens with the patience of a saint as we move her this way and that to try and accomplish the shave. Soon her pale round dome is naked and clean. Her parents give a cry of relief and continue the ceremony, my task nearly complete. A second red dot is placed on the top of her head and rice grains gently pressed down, the first having been applied to the fore head. I collect each precious tendril of hair and place them in a clean white handkerchief for later dispersal into a river leading to the sea.
Riya clings to her life source, her mother, with the strength only a small seven month old baby can achieve and watches me from a safe distance. I feel awful, like a vicious old woman stealing a child’s head of hair and pray inwardly she wouldn’t remember me from this moment. What an first impression to make on someone so small.
Drinks are poured and thirst is quenched. I watch my little guest and see the dawn of a shy gummy smile. Her sweet innocence has already forgiven my abominable behaviour. I tentatively reach out my hands, expecting a stern dismissal from my young judge. Instead she comes to me and I hold her like a porcelain vase, nervous to harm her in any way. She snuggles down, her chubby little arms and legs poking out of her pretty pink dress, and within minutes falls asleep in my arms, the augurs of the day forgotten.