The Cairn in the Woods

My grandmother had beautiful hair. It grew in full, thick, and luscious up until the day she passed away. In the daylight, it gleamed with its own solid radiance, pure white in contrast to the sun’s golden hue. At night, under the stars and the moon, it glimmered with coruscating points of light ranging from white to pale blue and pink. She grew it out long, letting it cascade over her shoulders and down her back, and she never had to brush it, for it never tangled.

I remember asking her how she came by her hair. It didn’t look like anybody else’s. My mom, her daughter, had plain, boring brown hair that she had to comb every night. I loved my grandmother’s hair, and I wanted mine to be like hers. Mine was boring, a dirty blond like my father’s with all my mother’s flatness and tangles. I wanted my grandmother’s perfect, lovely, sparkling hair.
She told me how she got it. Until she died, I was entranced by her story. I made her tell it to me so many times that she must have grown tired of it, but to her credit, she never showed it. She just smiled and told me all of it once again, perhaps because she loved me, or perhaps because she took pride in it and in her hair.

We do not often see the Entities. Most of them hide from our view, interfering with our lives only when the see fit. There are stories about heroes and villains in history who formed pacts with them, but in reality, such an undertaking is nearly impossible. Simply approaching one of the Entities is difficult, but to convince them to lend you a part of their power is even harder.

My grandmother, however, managed to do it. She never claimed it was anything special about her that allowed it to happen. She merely happened upon a fortuitous circumstance, and used it to her advantage. She said that’s how most people end up where they are in life — they get lucky with something, and the put work forth in the right way to take advantage of it.

Just after she married my grandfather, my grandmother was out for a walk in the woods, seeking herbs to gather for the tea she liked to make. She left the well-trod path and pushed deeper into the woods, hoping to find a place that she hadn’t searched before. There, only a few meters away from the path, she found a pile of rocks, out of which poked a tiny hand.

She knelt before it, placing her basket at her side. She had heard stories of such things, but she scarcely believed her eyes. She’d never thought she might witness an Entity herself, and yet there was no mistaking that hand for a child’s. The skin was a dark grey-black, though its flesh had the healthy luster of life, and it glimmered in the light as though it had been covered with powdered diamonds.

“Hello?” she asked. The rocks were stacked in such a way that it was obvious they had been laid intentionally. She didn’t know if they were a home, or something else.

The hand stirred, fingers flexing. It pulled back until the fingers grasped the edge of the stone. My grandmother leaned forward, trying to peer into the shadowy hole from which the hand had protruded. She gasped when two eyes, bright as silver moon-disks, opened in the shadows, staring back at her.

“Human,” said a small, thin voice, which grandmother said felt like a saw grating against her brain. “You have come to aid me.”

Grandmother had done no such thing, but, she said, she didn’t want the Entity to know that. “I have. What aid do you need?”

“You must release me from this cairn,” it said. Its other hand reached out, grasping the edge of the stone, and it pressed its face against the opening. Grandmother still saw nothing but shadow and those glowing eyes. “I will have my freedom.”

Curious, grandmother could not help by question the being, though the thought of displeasing it made her anxious. “How have you come to be trapped in these stones? Can’t you just knock them down yourself?

“No!” it said. Its fingers, which ended in sharp nails, scratched at the rocks. “I have been betrayed by my brethren. They sought to play a trick on me, but they have forgotten me here, and what was once an amusement has transformed into a punishment. I must repay them.”

“If you can’t free yourself, how can I hope to free you?” she asked. She said she was afraid to touch the stones, for fear that whatever had trapped this Entity here had cursed them.

“They’re just stones, to you,” the Entity said. “It would be nothing for you to lift them and cast them aside. Helping me would be trivial.”

“Trivial for me, but not for you,” she said, thinking. “If I do something for you that you can’t do for yourself, I should ask something from you in return.”

“You seek to make a bargain?”

Grandmother said she could feel the anger in the Entity’s voice physically, as though the saw blade, skipping painfully but ineffectually along the ridges of her mind, now cut into it. Nevertheless, she persisted. “Yes. I crave a boon. If I free you, you must compensate me.”

“I can do nothing for you until you free me,” the Entity snarled. “Let me go, and then I will discuss your reward.”

Grandmother ran her hand along her scalp. Yes, her scalp, for you see, my grandmother was born with no hair upon her body. For all her life, she had found herself horrible to look upon. My grandfather told her she was beautiful as a spring river, but she could never believe him. Now, she thought, she had a chance at real beauty.

“No,” she said, growing more confident despite her fear. “No, first you agree to grant me a boon. Then I will free you.”

“You wish to force me into a pact?” The Entity’s tiny hands gripped the rocks. The tendons stood out with the strain of its anger.

“No —” My grandmother began to refuse, but she immediately realized her mistake. Pacts were the only way to ensure an Entity’s promises. “No, not a binding pact. It need only last until I free you from the stones. Long enough to make sure you keep your word.”

The Entity, to grandmother’s shock, screamed. It withdrew fully into the cairn and, with a violence that surprised her, began to rage, cursing in a language she didn’t understand and pounding audibly against the stone walls of its prison. Even the tiniest pebble among them refused to budge. Though its behavior frightened her, this was how my grandmother came to be certain that the Entity needed her.

“What I will ask of you is small,” she said. “Another traveler might ask you for more. Indeed, you can’t be assured another traveler will even come this way. I only came upon you by happenstance.”

She could not be sure the Entity had listened, but after a short time, it did calm down. Its hands returned, shakily, to the edges of the shadowed hole that was its only window into the world. “What is it that you desire?”

“Hair,” she said. “I have been without hair my entire life. I want to have lovely, wonderful hair upon my head, as perfect and beautiful as it can be.”

“Are you sure?” the Entity said. “You could demand so much more of me. There is more to give, within my power.

Grandmother admits that she hesitated. She could have forced the Entity into a deeper pact, one which would let her use a portion of its power as her own, like the Hero King of legend. The thought was tempting, she said, in a sickening way. She had never much wanted that sort of power, or responsibility. And besides, the Entities were dangerous. The more you asked of them, the more you opened yourself to the risks.

“I am sure,” she said. “As you said, it is a simple thing to free you. It would only be fair of me to ask a simple thing of you, in return.”

“Fine,” the Entity said, with exacting clarity. “Your desire shall be fulfilled. Give me your hand.”

“My hand?”

“We must forge the pact, which you so demanded. One which, as we are both agreed, will last only until you have freed me from these stones and I have blessed you with…. Hair. One which, as we are both agreed, will grant us no dominion over one another.”

“One which, we are both agreed, will result in no harm done to the other, during or after its completion,” my grandmother said, hopeful that, should she follow the Entity’s pattern, her words would be taken into the agreement.

“I wish you no harm on this day,” the Entity assured her. “I wish only for my freedom from this wretched, boring purgatory.”

My grandmother nodded and, though the desire to pull back and depart filled her, and though she feared that she had made some horrid mistake, she reached her hand toward the hole in the cairn. Quick as a flash, the Entity reached out in turn, one hand grasping the end of her finger. Its nails pierced her skin like needles, then withdrew, leaving five welling dots of blood.

Grandmother snatched her hand back. Within her, she felt a thrumming potential that she had no idea how to access. It felt almost like a second heart, beating at ten times the speed of her own. She put her hand to her chest, gasping.

“The pact is formed,” the Entity said. Its voice no longer sawed at her mind, but instead echoed deep, bringing something closer to pleasure than pain. “Fulfill your part of the bargain.”

My grandmother, blinking in the face of the new sensations, reached out. With ease, she lifted the stones from the top of the cairn. Within seconds she had dislodged enough of them that the top of the cairn was open to the day, though the inside was still cast in dark shadow. The Entity’s eyes gazed up at her, blinking at the light, though she still couldn’t make out the rest of its form.

“Is that enough? Do I need to move all the stones?”

“No,” the Entity replied. “No, I am free to leave now. But I shall wait for nightfall to make my move.”

“My part of the bargain is fulfilled?”

“Yes,” the Entity said. “Yes. Now for mine.”

The thrumming, vibrating feeling of another heart within her intensified, filling her entire body. Grandmother said she felt light, as though she might float away from the earth and into the boughs of the trees that surrounded him. Then she awoke, lying on the forest floor, not realizing she had passed into unconsciousness. She pushed herself up onto her elbows, but her head felt heavy.

She reached behind herself, intended to rub at her scalp. Then she cried out, scrambling into a seated position. Her hair, lush, white, glimmering locks, fell forward, draping over her face down past her chin. She ran her fingers through it and, she felt no shame to admit, began to cry.

“Thank you!” she said, brushing her new hair to one side. She leaned toward the cairn, where the Entity still hid from the light. “Thank you so much.”

“Be gone from this place,” the Entity said. “You have your boon. Our pact is complete. Return to your home.”

Grandmother stood, feeling an edge of anxiety at the Entity’s words. The thrumming within her had disappeared, replaced by a strong, gnawing hunger in her stomach. The Entity’s voice, briefly bearable, now brought discomfort with every syllable. Without speaking another word to it, she left.

The whole way home, she ran her fingers through her hair, marvelling at its smooth, cool touch upon her flesh. She scarcely believed what had just happened, yet the proof was evident in its weight upon her scalp, and it would remain there for the remainder of her life.

My grandmother loved her hair. She felt blessed to have it, and she looked on her encounter with that Entity as a positive one. And yet, despite all of that, my grandfather cursed the Entity’s existence when he woke up one morning beside my grandmother to find her cold and stiff, the life strangled out of her by her own hair, which had wrapped around her neck as she had turned in the night, depriving her of air.

I don’t trust the Entities. Most people don’t, I know. We’re taught to fear them. My grandmother’s story almost convinced me otherwise, until she died, and I realized that the Entity had, in the end, extracted its vengeance. Her hair never tangled, until it killed her. The Entity had said, “I wish you no harm on this day,” leaving it open to harm her in the future. My grandmother loved her hair, and it brought her some happiness, but I don’t believe it was worth her death.

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