In a mildewed city by the sea, tall buildings stared at each other across broken pavements. And sometimes, the people inside them did the same—I was one of them. Every night, lives were enacted in glass boxes suspended high and bright as fireflies. At the time, I didn’t have a life of my own. So when the dark and night-time luster had shoved aside the squalor of the day, I watched.
One play had acts that were also set in the day. It took place in a clear plexiglass balcony that hung off the opposite building. A woman often stood on the balcony when the sun was overhead. She had thick, black hair that hung down to her hips. A deep parting ran down the middle of her scalp. So deep, that it looked as if it had been cut with a knife.
The balcony had a steel box with blood-red climber roses escaping from it. The woman would stand next to the box and stare out and down. It wasn’t always clear what she was looking at. As she stared, the rose stems would sway in the salt breeze, and sometimes her long, dark hair would entwine with them. Green and black tendrils stretching out together.
In the evenings, the woman would lay out an al fresco dinner on black wooden furniture. I couldn’t always see the food. But I was sure that it would be meticulously cooked, yet somehow tasteless. She looked like the sort of person who didn’t live in her own body. This sort of person doesn’t usually understand much about nourishment. I had been like that when I was younger.
A man would come out onto the balcony after the table was set. He was always formally dressed, and he was always smiling. He would sit next to her instead of across. That way they could look out at the illuminated city—and he could stroke her while he ate.
Sometimes her forearm, or her shoulder. But most often her hair. And he wasn’t always gentle. There were lamps all around the table and I could see how his hand would bunch into a fist with her hair trapped inside it.
She never flinched when he did this. She didn’t seem to notice. She would stare at her plate and out in front of her. The man would do the same. His eyes echoing hers. But he would talk. And glitter. The lamps on the balcony threw fires into his eyes. But the glitter came from every part of him. As he shifted and smiled, talked and ate—all in a continuous, consecutive stream—facets of him caught the starlight, the moonlight and the lights from the headlamps of cars that had managed to find their way up to him. He was so illuminated on the surface that it was impossible to really see him.
Beside him the woman was a dark, silent mass—inside of which the energy was slowly pooling.
That was how it was on the balcony almost every day. The woman standing silently while the climber roses absorbed the sun. The couple eating together in the lamplight at night.
I only ever saw the woman’s eyes flicker with life when they followed a little girl who played in the park below our buildings. The girl would come with her nanny and she never played with the other children. What she liked to do was run. With arms stretched out like stiff aeroplane wings. And running, she would weave her way in and out of the groups of children. Swooping and bounding as she went. I would look at the girl and so would the woman across. She was inside herself when she did so. I knew it by the way her shoulders would rise—shifting the weight of her upper body to her hands that gripped the balcony railing. Poised for something.
One day the man and the woman had lunch on the balcony. It happened every now and then on the weekend. They ate. It was day, so I could see what they were eating. Roast leg of lamb. She sliced bits of it off the bone with a shiny carving knife. The man ate it with her hair bunched in his left fist.
When he was done, he left her there with one shiny swoop of her hair hanging almost to the ground. The other half, a mussed rat’s nest of tangles.
She kept sitting there. Staring straight ahead. Still. As if she would sit like that forever.
But when it was close to sunset, she bowed her head. All the way down. Till it was resting on the table. With one hand she spread her long, black hair across the table-top in front of her. It spilled off the edge like a waterfall of silk. The fingers of her other hand scrabbled across the black wood. Searching for something. Till they found the carving knife. She lifted it high. I remember how the sun glinted off the blade. And then she brought it down hard in a strong movement.
And chopped off her long, black hair.
When I awoke several hours later and saw the flames through my bedroom window, I called the fire department. At first it seemed like they weren’t going to take an old lady seriously. But then they came. And the fire in the apartment opposite was doused.
When an investigation was done, as was necessary, the cause of the fire was found to be long strands of hair.
Dipped in kerosene, scattered across the apartment, and set alight.
The body of the woman was never found.
Radhika Borde lives in a small, historical city that’s not far from Prague. She has degrees in different things—a PhD in Cultural Geography, an MA in Religious Studies and a BA in English Literature. She shuttles between trying to recover from her education and making use of it. She is at work on a novel that combines themes of expatriation, other-worldliness, and identity.