When I was little, my favourite season was autumn. It was when the trees turned the colour of my hair. My dad told me the dancing leaves were celebrating me. My parents never worried about losing me in a crowd, but I hated how my hair made me stand out. Later, it was my calling card. Some men loved it. Some wanted proof it was natural. Some found it a fantasy. Others asked was it true what they said about red heads being feisty?
I learned to love my hair. Come autumn as an adult, I’d watch the leaves loop free, imagine I was too. Once a photographer boyfriend suggested shooting me naked in fallen leaves. When I said no, we stayed friends. Sometimes I picture myself in that non-existent photo. My skin is taut and pale, breasts unsunken, no lines stretching a body which would bear witness to the woman I am now. Perhaps I am a Pre-Raphaelite portrait rescued by this man, captured in copper and amber that matches my mane and the spread between my legs, then, untamed.
Now I find strands of steel grey in my faded hair. I wonder if the old wives’ tale is true; if two will grow if I tweezer one. I pull each, await their replacements, try not to imagine how it might feel to lose so much of what has defined me. Instead, I watch my son with his hair of autumn sunshine, a red paler than mine, a golden crown he owns.
My eyes are my second favourite thing. They are green on days I wear that colour, flecked with bursts of sunrise or sunset; occasionally grey when I wear darker clothes, or carry shadows. Other days they are khaki, like the camouflage the ex-soldier wore when I met him, before I saw his true colours.
Later he told me he didn’t usually go for redheads. He was balding, but his body was thick with hair. He told me my tits were too small, suggested I shave my pubes. I didn’t comment on the forest of his chest, how his arm hairs stood like aerials through a regiment tattoo. I didn’t criticise his twisted toes or note how claws grew instead of nails. He said I shouldn’t show my legs, criticised my body, although I was 28, unburdened by babies, running most days as I chased my freedom and kept my figure.
He coerced me into watching porn that made me feel more shame than showing my knees, and still I covered them. On our wedding day, I tried to hide my legs and blooming belly behind a public dustbin for the only photograph I remember.
Just after my 30th birthday, I packed my life into boxes and stored them beneath our bed. Then, hands clutching my daughter, I swung a bag of essentials across the body that had birthed my baby and borne her father’s brutality.
I did not look back. My dad drove us home to where I was raised and, as autumn fell, I stroked my daughter’s dark hair to settle her, and gazed at the changing leaves.
Seasons passed. I birthed another child: my body severed so my son would survive. I started to heal. I kept running, not always from my past. For my 40th birthday, I ran 56 miles in one day, then celebrated my new survival in a pair of hot pants. I reclaimed my life and body, although both still hurt sometimes.
Now I look at my legs and love them, and if they shake when I think of the man I escaped, I know they are strong. Now I look at my five-year-old son in wonderment, watching him gaze at me as if I have all the answers. His eyes are the colour of his sister’s. Sometimes her khaki irises darken too. She is 14, old enough to know. Sometimes she does not like her feet, her legs, worries about the darkness of her hair against her fair skin. I watch her start to wobble, whisper she is brave, she is beautiful. I want her to know our bodies are ours, and ours alone.
Hannah Storm’s writing has been named in Best Microfictions, the BIFFY 50, won the ‘I Must Be Off!’ travel writing competition and placed second in the Bath Flash Fiction Award. Her memoir has recently been short-listed in the annual Mslexia award, and her debut personal collection is published in July 2021 by Reflex Press. She lives in Yorkshire, England with her husband and two children, and works as a media consultant alongside her writing.