Listen, children, and hear the tale of Bramblewood and how it came to change seasons by the hours of the day.
There was in the 2nd Century Edgar IV, the King of Pennsylvania, a vain and childless ruler who claimed to have the most beautiful locks of anyone in all of the United Kingdoms of America, and promised to the man or woman who was his better to be entrusted with both his kingdom and title upon his death. Men and women and children both low-born and high- traveled from far and wide to meet the challenge, appearing in a phantasmal and gorgeous parade in his court — silky hair the color of autumn wheat, of sunsets, of unknown dark abysses; flowing locks like spills of molten silver, transparent as glass, tones of gray like slate cliffs touched by dawn light — none of these impressed him nor his advisors, for the King of Pennsylvania’s hair fluctuated with the movement of the clock hand: blonde upon waking, auburn in the morning, mahogany in the afternoon, black in the gloaming, silver at bed, and white in the depths of night.
And so over the course of the day his arrogance grew and grew, and by the time the final challenger appeared before him, he had swollen so with pride that the mere thought of another believing themselves to be superior both sickened and enraged him. And who was to appear but a balding, old hag, her scalp sprouting naught but a few coarse tufts riddled with hairworm. The sight and offensive odor of the diseased mendicant woman so mortified him, that she should place her appearance above his an unforgivable slight, he ordered his guards to remove her from his presence and scalp her as an example for the rest of his minions. The hag allowed herself to be taken, yet not before laying a curse upon him: “You love beauty so? Then let you have more! Let beauty’s bounty flow from you forevermore!” The king laughed, and his advisors followed suit, and the matter was forgotten in the drunken orgy of the evening, when all the contenders celebrated the king’s beauty in his bed chamber, and when he wore the bloody scalp of the hag in jest, mocking her high-pitched voice and wobbly gait.
Early that next morning, his hair and nails began to grow, the better for the world to appreciate their beauty. He woke in a panic, tangled by his beard and hair, strange helixes dangling from his fingertips and toes. The court mathematician and physician were summoned, and after much humming and hawing and beard tugging they concluded that his nails and hair were growing at a rate of one inch per minute.
“What rot!” he shouted. “This is the old hag’s curse? Ha! Have her hunted down and beheaded.”
“She did not survive the scalping, your eminence,” an advisor informed him.
In the beginning, a troupe of barbers accompanied him every moment of the day, grooming him constantly, hefting large sacks from his chambers every hour of every day (for “the rate of growth,” the mathematician later observed, “continuously escalated”), and exhausting the supply of scissors and clippers in the kingdom. By the end of one year, his bodily deposits had accumulated enough to overrun a landfill, and the hassle of endless grooming led to a decline in his quality as ruler, leading to riots and an attempted coup, the result of which was forty charred corpses hanging from the walls of the keep.
After so much continual effort, harrowing nightmares of a world covered in over-perfumed hair, and fearing for their own lives, the barbers plotted a “slip of the scissors” to put an end to the man and the curse, but a viper in their midst, thinking to buy himself a handsome plot of land, betrayed his brothers and sisters.
In a moment of paranoid fury, the king ordered every barber in the kingdom (turncoat included) to be scalped and executed. The scalps of hundreds of barbers accumulated, hung from the crowded walls of his castle, sun-dried and shriveled into desiccated fungi, and the king took the matter of toilet into his own hands. He locked himself up for weeks, always trimming himself, a talus slope of hair and nail accumulating at the base of his tower. He attempted new methods — waxing (painful and useless), plucking (tedious and painful and useless), burning (dangerous and painful and useless) — but in the end a trusty pair of scissors proved most efficacious.
Who could say how long such a state would have continued were it not for a bout of melancholy? Benumbed, his grooming habits faltered, and in a matter of days he found himself trapped in his chambers at the center of a web of gorgeous tangles and yellowed looping hobnails. The growth like some enchanted forest spilled down the tower and radiated outward through the halls, reeking of the king’s distinct robust odor. Everyone fled the castle, and Edgar IV, trapped as he was, subsisted on hair and nail for several weeks, before his insides became stopped up (for it should be known, children, that these materials are indigestible) — and he died of a painful rupture of the intestines.
Even in death his accursed body continued to produce hair and nail, and soon a wilderness of brambles had swallowed up the castle, stretching for miles and miles in any direction, still shifting color by the hour of the day and its rate of growth ever-accumulating. If you listen at night, when the angle of wind is just so, you can hear it creeping closer, the rustling of hair, the brittle scraping of nail.
So be quiet, children.
And sweet dreams.
Tim Boiteau lives in Michigan with his wife and son. He is a Writers of the Future winner and author of one novel, The Drummer Girl. “Bramblewood” is happily his tenth story at EDF. Please don’t share it with your children.