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“I have the most useless power in the world.”

Two men were sitting in an expensive bar in a very expensive hotel, nursing glasses of single-malt whisky. They were businessmen and friends and were celebrating the successful end of a complicated negotiation. The man who spoke fingered a small object on a chain fixed to his belt.

“What kind of power?” the other man asked.

“Watch. You see that woman sitting over there. The one with the diamonds and her hair all twisted up in a bun. Attractive in an uptight, Republican way, no? I can make her take her hair down and put it in – hmm – let’s say pigtails.”

As soon as the man spoke, the woman excused herself and left her table. She walked quickly to the ladies’ room and disappeared behind the door.

“So, you’re telling me she’s gonna come out of there with pigtails, huh. Just like that? The Heidi look?”

“Yup. Just wait.”

Five minutes later, the woman came out of the rest room with two large brown pigtails hanging from the sides of her head. She now looked vaguely Native American with her sharp features and high cheekbones. The two men watched as she walked back to her table and saw her friends gush about her new, impromptu hairstyle. They all seemed truly sincere.

“That’s part of it too,” the man said. “The woman always loves whatever hairstyle I give her and so does everyone else who sees it.”

“It IS very becoming on her.”

“See what I mean?”

The second man took a big swig of his drink. “I must say, you went to a lot of trouble to scam me like this. How come?”

The other man shook his head. “It’s not a scam. I’ve got this power. I bought this thing from a guy the other night. Best deal I ever made,” he said, holding up the thing on the chain, “and it always works. Bought it for ten bucks. He said it could do strange things for me, and I just felt like I HAD to buy it. Course, like I said, the power is completely useless. Just for fun. It’s not like anyone would buy videos of women having their hair cut off or anything. But it’s kinda exciting too. For instance, my secretary is a pretty girl, but kept her hair in this Fifties-looking helmet style. Next day after I got this thing, I pictured her with a short, highlighted bob. She came back from lunch that same day with her hair just like I pictured it. She looks gorgeous. I thought it was such a coincidence that I tried it on the receptionist. She wore her hair in this huge, ugly beehive. I pictured a soft, layered cut on my way home one night. She came in with that exact hairstyle the next morning.”

The thing on the chain was a kind of amulet formed from a knot of black hair, tied with leather thongs on which faint, flowing writing twisted upon itself. But the writing was totally illegible and seemed not even to be formed of Western characters.

“OK. So I’m supposed to believe this? You’re nuts.”

“No, I’m not. It’s true.”

“Tell you what: let me pick the next one. I pick a woman and a hairstyle, and you make it happen.”

“Deal.”

The second man scanned the small crowd in the bar. A blond trophy wife in a puffy mink coat was sitting alone, sipping a glass of white wine. Her thick, well-processed hair was pulled back with care from her face and held with a tasteful clip.

“Her,” the second man said, pointing discreetly. “I’d like to see her in a nice crewcut. Think you can handle that? Like that’ll ever happen,” he snorted.

“OK. I’d like to see that too. In fact, I’ve discovered I really like short hair on women. Funny, isn’t it? I’m 50 years old, and I’m just realizing this about myself. A nice crewcut it is.”

Just then, the blonde woman got up and started to leave. The two men threw some money down and followed her. She walked quickly down the block, past all the tony stores. She turned a corner, and the two men hurried to catch up. When they got to the corner and looked down the street, the woman was gone. Puzzled at first, they looked around. Then the man with the amulet pointed. A slowly spinning barber pole was just a few yards ahead. They sauntered slowly past the shop and saw the blond woman calmly sitting and flipping magazine pages. She was just waiting her turn in the side seats, like the men in the shop. The male customers stole glances at her from behind newspapers, but the two barbers seemed not to notice her. The two men loitered outside the shop, pretending to talk but watching the woman from the corners of their eyes.

Finally, the woman looked up and slipped out of her mink. She loosened her blond hair from its clip as she slid into the old-style barber’s chair. The men could see the perturbed look on the barber’s face and his hesitation in putting the cape around her neck. Then they could see the woman motioning toward her hair and the barber shaking his head. The woman seemed to be speaking seriously and not so calmly then, and she held her fingers up a little way apart. They could see the barber shrug and then turn his back to them. Then, as the barber stepped to one side, they saw the large black clippers in his hand. He flicked the cord and balanced the clippers in his hand. The men could hear the distant whirr of the motor as the machine slid under the woman’s curtain of blond hair, and, instantly, hair began raining down onto the woman’s shoulders and the floor.

The first pass of the clippers seemed to do very little. A mass of hair still obscured the woman’s shoulders. By the third pass, however, the woman’s bare neck began to show above the cape, blending into a close-cropped nape. The barber had to use his comb to move the shorn hair to the floor so that he could attend to his work. After a few minutes, the back and sides of the blonde woman’s head had been clipped close, leaving her with a cap of curling hair. Without changing the clipper blades, the barber continued shearing up the sides and back of the woman’s head, farther and farther towards her crown. Flicks of his wrist sent clouds of hair floating to the floor at his feet. Then, with apparently more attention, he began running the clippers over the woman’s crown, from back to front. Shorn hair tumbled before the woman’s eyes and hung from her shoulders. The barber carefully used his comb to control the hairline at the front, running the machine above the comb and leaving the front hair slightly longer than the close-buzzed crewcut hair on the rest of the woman’s head. A subtle whorl of hair stood up stiff and straight above the woman’s arched right eyebrow. Then, the barber used his finishing clippers, delicately manicuring the close-clipped sideburns into almost invisible triangles and tapering the hair on her nape down to nothing. A flip of the cape and an avalanche of blonde hair, and the woman was done. She rubbed her nape and crown with real appreciation and smiled a dazzling smile. Then she paid the barber, who smiled broadly himself, picked up her mink and walked out of the shop.

The two men stared after her, watching the male customers in the shop crowd the windows to gawk at the woman as she walked down the street.

“Well, I gotta say, I’m impressed. Weirdest shit I ever saw.”

The man nodded in reply.

“Hope you don’t decide to use it on Sarifa. Her hair is too gorgeous to mess with.”

The man nodded again. He had been married only a few months. His Arab-born wife had waist-length, blue-black hair thick and rich. She told him once that she had never had it cut. Not even the slightest trim. Perhaps it was her hair that first attracted the man’s attention. You could pick her out from across a football field, just by her hair alone.

“Nope. No tampering with Sarifa. I love her hair. It’s what attracted me to her in the first place. Her hair is magic. Though, like I said before, I’m really enjoying women with crewcuts. Strange but true. Wonder how my secretary would like it if she traded in her new bob for a buzzcut.”

“Well, if you use that thing on her, she’ll probably love it. And everyone else too. Damnedest thing I ever saw.”

The men followed the crew
cut woman as she sauntered down the boulevard. Occasionally, she would caress her newly buzzed hair and smile. She stopped briefly in front of one shop and looked at her reflection in the window. She seemed extremely pleased. And the men could see the reactions on the faces of the people who passed by. All seemed impressed. And the males were clearly attracted. The short butch hair shimmered in the sun, begging to be stroked. The second man kept staring in admiration.

After the two men had walked a block or so in silence, the second man tapped the first on the arm. “I gotta catch a cab here. Thanks for the demonstration. Weirdest thing ever. But…ya know, that kind of thing for ten bucks. That’s really too good to be true. I’m always leery of deals that are too good to be true.”

The men shook hands and parted.

But now, as he walked, a cloud gathered over the man’s mood. His friend was right. You don’t buy amulets like this from a stranger for only ten bucks. This thing really worked. It was like real magic. There had to be a string attached somewhere. But where? The man decided to do some research and picked out five or six occult bookstores downtown from the Yellow Pages. He spent the rest of the afternoon going from one to the other. No luck. Finally, he was down to the last store on his list. Unlike the other bookstores, it was a bright-looking shop with a green dragon painted on the door and a larger one painted on the window. The man went in. A woman with sky-blue eyes and wild, unruly red hair sat behind a counter. The man had learned that poking around himself in such stores got him nowhere, so he wasn’t going to be shy about asking for help.

He walked up to the woman behind the counter. “Have you ever seen anything like this before? I’m trying to identify what it is and what it’s supposed to do.”

The woman stared at the amulet for quite a long time, turning it over and over in her fingers.

“Um, yes. I think I’ve seen something like this before. I was in the Peace Corps in the Middle East. Hold on.”

The woman reached behind her and pulled a huge leather-bound book from the shelf. She flipped through some heavy pages and held the amulet close to the open page.

“Yes. I thought so. This kind of amulet is used to control a Djinn. Make it grant your wishes. But only in a very limited way.” The woman put the amulet back on the counter. She seemed glad not to have to touch it any more.

“A what?” the man asked.

“A Djinn. You know – a genie. Like a genie in a bottle. Arabian Nights and all that. Djinn is the correct name. They’re these magic spirits that can get trapped inside an object – a binding charm, it’s called. Lamp, ring, anything really. Usually something the master can keep around himself close to hand. And once trapped, the owner of the binding charm becomes the Djinn’s master and can make it do things. Grant wishes and such. But you have to remember, Djinni are bound about with all kinds of rules. It’s what keeps them stuck in objects. And it’s what keeps a master from becoming king of the world or something like that. Only certain kinds of wishes can be granted by certain kinds of Djinni. They work in different ways.” The woman sounded as though she were discussing the well-known habits of cats and dogs.

“So there’s a genie in here?”

“No. The master can also give away little pieces of the Djinn, so he can serve others – in a limited way. Kind of like Rent-a-Genie. The master creates a little charm and puts some of the Djinn’s power into it, and the Djinn can then be given special tasks or grant certain specific kinds of wishes.”

“What about this one? Can you tell what it’s supposed to do?”

The woman picked up the amulet again and studied it closely, holding it to her face and peering over her glasses.

“From what I can see from the inscription on the leather binding, this appears to control a particularly nasty and violent sort of Djinn. Very physical, very mean. It works by means of irresistible urges.”

“What does that mean?”

“If you were to wish for a billion dollars, the money wouldn’t just appear in a puff of smoke. Magic doesn’t work that way. But a Djinn could make Bill Gates get the urge to write you a check for a billion dollars and not know why he had to do it. He’d just have this irresistible compulsion to do it. Though he’d be happy after he did.”

“I could wish for a billion dollars?” the man asked, breathless. He was very wealthy already, but a billion dollars was still worth wishing for.

“No, not really. At least, I don’t think so. That was a bad example. I seem to remember that real Djinni don’t grant wealth wishes. Or death wishes either. Don’t know why. Like I said,” she went on, “They’re subject to lots of tricky rules and regulations. Some can only do certain kinds of things, but even then you have to be careful. And that’s what makes dealing with them so tough. If you screw up a rule, bad things happen to you.”

“And this amulet?”

“Very limited. As I read it, it seems to give you only the ability to cast urges about – I know this may sound silly – about hair.”

The man stared in silence. Finally, he said, “No. Not silly. I think that’s been happening.”

“Really?” The woman was breathless with excitement. “You’ve used it? Well, if that’s true, you better watch out. If it was a gift, then no problem. But if you paid for it….” The red-haired woman looked pained. “Well, in that case, since you’re not the Djinn’s master, then the Djinn will look to you for payment at some point. And if you don’t have anything of value… well, then anything goes, and it’s likely to give you the irresistible urge to jump off the nearest bridge.”

“What? What would it want from me? Is this thing really dangerous? You said no death wishes.”

“Right. No master can make a death wish. But all Djinni are very dangerous if crossed in a bargain. You have to abide by all the rules. If you’ve used the amulet to have the Djinn cast any urges, it’ll want to be paid. That’s the rule. And the old Djinni tales are very clear on this point: it will kill you for certain if you can’t pay. That’s a rule too. And sorry, but I don’t know how to pay it or what it would want. But,” the woman smiled, “on the bright side, it can’t come for payment till you’ve willingly entered a kind of magic circle. Once you do that, you conjure up the Djinn, and it will come to you to be paid in full at sundown.”

The man looked a little relieved. “Oh. OK then. Don’t think I’ll be drawing any magic circles around myself. Don’t even know what one looks like.”

“Well, there are pictures in this book,” she said. She pulled a book off the shelf behind her and slapped it heavily onto the countertop. The man thumbed through a few heavy pages. “Just be careful you don’t step into one by accident.” Both chuckled at the unlikelihood of that happening. All the circles in the pictures were quite elaborate and would have been hard to conceal.

“Thank you. Can I buy this book? It seems helpful.” The man looked at the precise pictures of the magic conjuring circles. He wouldn’t be stepping into any of those soon.

“Of course. Let me get a bag.”

As the woman packed up the book, she looked sideways at the man.

“So it really works? The amulet?”

“Yes. I know it sounds crazy but it does work.”

The woman was silent for a moment.

“How much do I owe you?” the man asked.

The woman took a deep breath. “Well, maybe nothing,” she answered. “You see this?” She lifted a lock of her wild, curly hair. I’ve been dying to get rid of this mop for the longest time. Think you could give me the urge? If you do, the book is yours. Gratis.”

The man was surprised. “I suppose. What style were you thinking of?”

The woman looked embarrassed. She reached behind the counter and pulled out a magazine and opened it to a dog-eared page. She showed the man a picture of a woman with a short flattop, hair shorn military close at the sides and back.

“You serious?” he asked. He thought of the blond wom
an who had just gotten a short crewcut. Now this.

“Very serious. Wanted to for a long time but never had the guts. You can give me the guts.”

The man stared at the picture. “OK,” he said. “Here goes.”

Both were silent for a few seconds. Then the man said, “Did it work?”

The woman cocked her head back and forth, trying to decide. Then she walked over to the door, double-locked it and pulled down the shades.

“Don’t know. Let’s find out,” she said. Then she reached behind the counter again and pulled out a home-haircutting kit, complete with clippers and guides. “Been saving this,” she said. “Never thought I’d be able to use it on myself though. Now maybe I can. Or you can.”

The woman held out the black clippers and sat down. “Real short back and sides. No guide at all. And try to flatten out the top. If it doesn’t turn out well, just keep buzzing.”

The man felt the weight of the clippers in his hand. With his other hand, he prodded the woman’s wild red hair, scrunching it gently. It was soft and fresh-smelling. Then, he lifted a great handful at the back, popped on the clippers. He waited a few seconds to give the woman a chance to stop him. When she didn’t, he plunged the clippers under the red tangle of hair, just like he had seen the barber do a few hours ago. Red hair tumbled over his wrist, and he could make out a reddish shadow of fuzz where the clippers had buzzed. His hands shaking, he pressed the clippers into the girl’s nape again and pushed upward. Wild hair separated from her neck and nape and cascaded downward. The same reddish stubble shadow revealed itself. The man brushed upwards against the girl’s nape and felt the soft tiny bristles against the back of his hand.

“How does it feel?” the girl asked.

“Wonderful,” the man answered. “Like velvet.”

Again the machine chewed away a section of hair, this time farther and farther up the back of the girl’s head. Tangles of auburn tumbled downwards in slow motion. The reddish haze grew, covering the sides of the woman’s head. “It’s so thick,” the man said, under his breath. The woman um-hmmed her agreement.

The man picked up a thick black comb, pushed it into the hair at the top of the woman’s head and ran the machine over the top of the teeth, as he had seen the barber do with the blonde woman’s front hairline. He repeated the motion again and again, clearing a wide path along the top of the woman’s scalp. Then at the front of the woman’s head, he tried to square away the hair as best he could. But even he could see that it was a very sloppy attempt at a flattop. It was just beyond his skill. The woman held up a mirror. She wasn’t distressed but she wasn’t ecstatic either. “Not exactly what we pictured,” she said. “Oh, well. Just make it a short crewcut and leave it at that. Picture Demi Moore in G.I. Jane – but just a smidgen longer.”

The man concentrated. He had seen a movie trailer. He pictured the short military buzzcut – but just slightly fuller. Then he adjusted a guide onto the clipper blade and pressed it into the woman’s skewed flattop. Red hair folded into small rolls of shorn debris. The flattop was being erased into a short, short butch barely 1/8 inch long if that. Front to back the man pushed the machine, furrow after furrow of short red hair getting sheared shorter yet. The woman closed her eyes as miniature tumbleweeds of crewcut hair rolled down the woman’s face. Finally, the machine stopped making its chewing sound. The man rubbed the shorn head, enjoying the feel of the amber fur and clearing off loose short hairs. Then the woman began rubbing too, with both hands up her nape and along the sides, feeling the stiffness and evenness of the crewcut.

“I love it,” she said. “It’s perfect. It’s just what I wanted all along. Thanks.”

She beamed into a handheld mirror, enjoying the white gleam of her scalp beneath the butched hair and the subtle sway of the grain.

The man put down the clippers. His heart was pounding. He had really been excited by his barbering experience. He too loved the look of the red crewcut.

“Thank you again,” the woman said. She could barely take her eyes off her own reflection. “Here. Please. Take the book. Thank you again.”

The man tucked the heavy book under his arm and left the shop. The woman was still admiring her new look in the hand mirror. Later, waiting for a cab, he looked down at the short red hairs that clung to his highly polished shoes. And he wondered uncomfortably what that last experience had cost him with his creditor, the Djinn.

But, the man thought, this is all nonsense. There are no such things as Djinni and magic lamps. Sure, he’d thought of certain hairstyles for a few women (five women was it? seven, tops) in the past few days, and the women had gotten those same styles shortly after. But it must have been just a coincidence. Or a power of suggestion thing. No such things as Djinns or whatever they were called. Worrying about dealing with one was just silly.

Late that afternoon, the man pulled into the driveway of his large suburban house and rolled down the window, waving to his gardener. “Hello, Jose. What are you up to?” The gardener stopped his lawn tractor, tucked a piece of paper into his pocket and waved back. A swirl of freshly turned earth appeared in the wake of the tractor.

Holá, señor. Mrs. wants me to redo some landscaping today.” He patted the pocket where he had put the piece of paper. “Very hard. Lotta work Gotta finish by tonight she say.” Jose returned his attention to the detail of his careful groundskeeping. The man nodded and parked his car in his garage. That was Sarifa’s business. Though they had been married just a few months, she had taken over management of the house from top to bottom. Inside the house, he found a note from his wife, telling him that she probably would not be home that evening and that she would see him in the morning. He glanced at the mail and went up to his bedroom to change.

Alone in the master bedroom, he put the book he had gotten at the occult bookstore down on a table and prepared to change. The heavy book slipped a fraction and tipped off the table. It fell open to a page showing the kinds of circles that would beckon a Djinn for payment. The man shook his head, thinking how foolish he had been about the whole Djinn thing. Silly. Then he looked out his window at the gardener below, watching him carefully cut a new outline in the grass around the house, hugging the shrubbery and consulting a piece of paper for reference. He turned to pick up the open book on the floor, thinking he should just put it on a high shelf in the library and forget about it. As he turned, he happened to glance out the window. His heart skipped a beat. Carefully, he opened the book again and studied the page that had just fallen open. Then, clasping the book to his side, he ran up a spiral staircase to the observatory atop the roof. From that height, he had a full view of the rolling grounds surrounding his house. He looked at the picture of the magic circle in the book and then down at the new design the gardener had painstakingly cut into the turf encircling the house. There was no mistaking the repeated pattern of curls and spikes. It was the same circle. Courtesy of “the Mrs.” And he had willingly entered into the center of that circle. It was all real, he thought. The man slumped against the observatory railing. A warm breeze whipped around him from the west.

Night would fall soon. The Djinn would come. The man would die. And Sarifa – his new and cunning wife – would become a very very rich widow.

The man raised his head and felt the warm breeze. He was not beaten yet. He was resourceful, and he now knew more than his new wife thought he knew. So the man sat and thought and waited for night and the coming of the Djinn.

What if, the man thought, he could find the Djinn’s binding charm and become its master? Surely he could save his life that way. But where would the binding charm be and what was it? As the woman in the bookstore said, it c
ould be any object. Any physical object at all. He could tear through all of Sarifa’s things, but he could never be assured of finding the object. She had a ton of jewelry and inlaid boxes and exotic objects from the East. Besides, as the book said, a master is likely to want to keep the object on his person as much as possible. She was probably carrying it even now. Or a ring or a bracelet or a necklace would be a likely choice. The man rolled the amulet over and over in his fingers. It would be like finding a needle in a haystack. And even if he found it, then what? Perhaps there was no way. Maybe he could bluff. Maybe he could bargain with the Djinn just to enjoy some last pleasure or exact some last revenge. Or maybe he would die tonight. Maybe.

As the last rays of the sun were cropped away by the horizon, the man sat alone in a leather chair in his den. He had sent all the servants away for the evening. Slowly, a shadow behind the man’s chair began to grow. Larger and darker it became and then more and more solid. The man felt the temperature drop in the room and then heard a low, deep growl.

“I have come as bidden,” the voice said bluntly. “Pay me.”

The man tried to appear as unruffled as possible. Bluff or no bluff, it was an article of faith with him that no business deal could be a success if the other party thinks you’re scared.

“I summoned you because I have payment for you. A very large payment, in fact. So large that it will recompense you for all you have done for me thus far. But, in return, it must also buy me something more from you.”

The figure of the Djinn took the form of a huge man with a head like a shark’s, all bobbing in a sea of shadow. It narrowed its red eyes and cocked its head. “Speak on,” it croaked.

The man spoke one word. “Freedom.”

“Freedom,” the Djinn whispered to itself. “It is not yours to give. Only the master…”

The man nodded and held up his hand..

“I know I am not your master and that I hold only this amulet now. But I know where your binding charm is. I shall get it, and I promise to free you. You will be free by this time tomorrow night or you may return and do what you will. But, in exchange for your freedom, I must receive my further grant from you. Is it a bargain?” The man barely kept his voice from cracking as the fear rose in his throat.

The Djinn seemed to hesitate and think. The man knew he had baited his hook well. The book said there was nothing a Djinn craved more than freedom. And to delay for only a day for the chance of that freedom…. One more day was all the man wanted. The man knew that the possibility of freedom from his bondage would be very difficult for the Djinn to resist. And as he predicted, the Djinn finally gave a slow nod and disappeared into the shrinking shadows. The man thought he heard the word “Tomorrow” as the shadow faded away.

Late the next afternoon, the man sat in his study, watching the clock and listening. A large fire burned in the fireplace. He was nervous. He wanted his wife to return. She had to return before dark, before the Djinn’s return. Finally, he heard what he was listening for: the key turning in the front door and his wife’s footsteps.

“Sarifa,” the man called from the den. He heard his wife’s keys hit the floor and wished he could see her face. “Come in here please.”

The man sat waiting for his wife. She entered wide-eyed and pale.

“No, dear. Not dead yet. Maybe soon, but not yet. Before we talk more, come here and let me cut off your hair. You know you want me to.” The man patted the back of a graceful antique chair.

The woman felt the irresistible urge take her, and she sat in the straightbacked chair, beside which the man had laid out his clippers and razors. She felt no need to scream or resist. She suddenly wanted her hair cut off. She wanted him to shear it off her, to be free of its weight and warmth. She needed to feel the burr of the clippers on her bare scalp. Part of her brain knew that this was the Djinn’s urging, but she didn’t care. She wanted to be shorn of all that long heavy black hair.

“I really should be thanking you, dear. Before you gave that amulet to me – or rather, had your brother sell it to me – I never realized how much I loved short hair on women. But I guess you knew that somehow – knew that I had this secret thing for short hair. That was smart. To give me a totally useless, harmless power, but one that I’d be certain to use. And so put myself in the Djinn’s debt. Yes, love, I know about the Djinn, and I know the man in the bar was your brother. I checked. So you had the Djinn put the urge in me to buy the amulet. As it’s master, that must have been easy. But maybe not – I never realized how difficult it could be to get your wishes granted. You’ve probably used the Djinn sparingly over the years. Is that how you got me to marry you, I wonder? Who knows? Not important now. But here’s the funny thing – it turns out that I really do love buzzed women.”

As he spoke, the man clicked on the clippers and listened to the hum. “It’s like music, isn’t it. The lovely buzzing sound. Like busy bees at work. Now time for the condemned man’s last pleasure.”

He pressed the machine to his wife’s head and sheared away an expanse of long raven hair from her temple. The hair hit the floor with a soft rustle. The woman seemed to give a half-smile, almost involuntarily. A second thick sheaf of tresses bounced along. The woman’s right ear was almost visible beneath an overhang of irregularly buzzed ends. The man admired the rich, dark shadow of stubble left behind. He felt his buzzing was getting better – more artistic on this second attempt. He flicked the shorn hair with a flourish, tossing it behind his wife’s head. Then he lifted a huge handful at the back of her head and slowly, slowly ran the machine up the long neck into the thickness of her nape and on up, up over the top of her head. At that point the machine began to labor, humming unhappily, and the man stopped mowing that row and began again on his wife’s dutifully bent neck. “Keep your head down, please. Thank you.”

Back and forth he ran the blades over his wife’s head, reducing the shoulder-length curtain of hair to nearly invisible stubble. He could begin to see the outline of his wife’s lovely round skull, and, as he lifted her chin gently to press the clippers into her front hairline, he admired how large her eyes were, burning now with a curious blend of anger and excitement. He wondered if he should have used scissors to clear away some of the bulk. He thought of the snick-sound the scissors would make, chewing through Sarifa’s dark hair. No, he thought, I prefer the buzz of the clippers. Such a clean look, he mused, watched the machine flow through the black tresses. So nice and even underneath it all, the hint of a hairline, the short individual hairs. He played with the clippers a bit, shearing a few clumps not to the scalp, to see how the hair left behind would look. It was stood up stiff and straight. Then he mowed over the once-buzzed hair a second time, shaving down close to the scalp in even rows. When more than half of Sarifa’s head had been clipper-shaved, the man took a break to admire his handiwork. Long black hair still hung luxuriantly from the left side of her head. The right side and most of her crown was shaved to boot-camp proportions. The stubble rasped like sandpaper under the man’s caress. Then he raised the machine again and ploughed another furrow of near-bare scalp. Black hair melted away before the humming blades.

The shearing was coming to an end, with just stray long hairs in irregular bunches to be cleared away. As the last rays of the sun began to disappear below the horizon, the machine cleaned up those remaining bunches, leveling all to a whisper of butched-down hair. Then the machine stopped. The man ran his hands over his wife’s shorn scalp, appreciating the rich texture of the stiff soft bristles. It felt like velcro beneath his fingers, and his wife purred in satisfaction at the feel of his hands on her near-bare
crown. Then the man bent down and gently kissed his wife’s shaven nape, feeling the soft-hard fur under his lips. He then collected the shorn locks from the floor, gathering them with difficulty into his hands owing to the thickness of the mass. Then he walked over to the roaring fireplace and smiled. “Freedom,” he said softly.

The woman tried to scream as the man tossed the shorn hair into the crackling fire. The flames shot up, black and furious and clutching. And the walls of the room shook with the cry of the Djinn. “Freeeedooom”, it roared, rearing briefly in the flames. Then, with a hurricane rush, the thing disappeared up the chimney, scattering sparks and ashes in its wake. The man smiled again. His near-bald wife wept in silence.

“Yes, it was clever making your hair the binding charm that imprisoned the Djinn. That way, you thought you would always have it near you and safe from thieves. Very clever. But you gave me a hint when you used a lock of it to make the amulet.”

A fury burned inside the woman. She loved her new haircut and the clean feel of the crewcut stubble, but she knew she shouldn’t. She resented loving it as much as she did.

“My brother will kill you when he sees what you have done to me.” The woman rubbed her close-shorn scalp, the short hairs tickling her palm. She enjoyed the sensation of it, hungry to be touched.

“Ah, but no, my sweet. Three other boons I bargained from the Djinn. The first was your desire for this haircut. A simple urge. It looks wonderful by the way. The second was your brother’s desire to have nothing to do with you anymore. I’m sorry to disappoint you, but he now won’t care what you look like or what I do to you. A slightly more complex urge, that was. I would have had the Djinn kill him, but you know that’s against the rules. If it weren’t, I’d be dead already, eh, sweet? And I know what you’re thinking: that you’ll kill me anyway. But look at this.”

The man held up a small box, fitted with strange-colored metal fastenings and bound with some of Sarifa’s black hair from the amulet.

“I bought this too. My third boon. A present for you. In case anything happens to me or even if I just feel like giving it to you someday because you’ve failed to keep me happy. It’s an Urge. Specifically, it’s the absolutely positively irresistible urge to pour gasoline all over yourself and burn your lovely self up. And you’d do it complete with signed suicide note. A horrible death. Horrible. If you’re lucky enough to die, that is. So be a good girl, and don’t make me give this nasty Urge to you. Just continue to please me like a good wife, and you will continue to live.”

The man unplugged the clippers and neatly stowed them away.

“And by the way, my love,” the man said. “I hope you like the haircut. Since you helped me discover that I love women with short crewcuts, this will be your new permanent hairstyle. For life. So to speak.”

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