The barber’s shop was closed for three days after the death of his elder daughter.
On the morning of the fourth day, he took his younger daughter to the home of his aunt so she would not have to spend the day alone. Then he came to his shop and stretched out the awning to provide shade for patrons who preferred to wait outside. He entered and swept the floor, ridding it of the hairs left behind from his most recent customer, the one whose shave he had just completed when the news arrived. Then, as the tower bells tolled outside, he opened the door so any who wished their hair cut could enter.
Georgy came first, as the barber had known he would. Georgy and the barber had been childhood friends, blood-brothers, and even though he lived several miles down the road now, no sword or magic would have kept him away on that morning.
“I’m sorry,” was all Georgy said, the same as he had said at the funeral the day before.
“There was nothing that you could have done.”
Georgy grunted. He could not nod, for the barber was deep into his work.
Later, as Georgy was standing and paying the barber, two soldiers strode into the shop. Behind them walked their master, Count Rozsa.
At the sight of the men, Georgy flinched, fumbling the coins he was handing the barber. Neither bent to pick up the dropped silver.
“Good morning, Count Rozsa,” the barber said.
The count unfastened his vest and handed it to one of his men. He went then and sat himself in the barber’s chair.
“A haircut,” Count Rozsa said.
Georgy coughed, and all eyes—but the barber’s—turned towards him. He coughed again quickly and excused himself from the shop.
The barber picked up his scissors and a comb but did not begin to cut the count’s hair. “Your Highness has long patronized Filip, has he not?”
The count inclined his head. “Yes.”
“To what does this simple barber owe your patronage?”
The only sound was an occasional drip from the faucet where the barber drew his water.
“I may have my hair cut wherever pleases me,” the count said.
“Indeed you may, Your Highness.” The barber began to run his comb through the man’s hair, deciding where to cut first. He would play his part, wherever it might lead.
With the first snip, the count spoke again. “Filip’s hand shook the last time I was in his shop. A man can’t have his hair cut by someone he does not trust. Your hand will be true. Will it not, barber?”
The barber drew a careful breath. “It will.”
Neither of them spoke for the remainder of the time that the barber worked. Several of his usual customers walked down the street and glanced through the windows of his shop, but none entered while the count was inside.
The count stood when the barber pronounced his work done. One soldier brought the count’s vest; the other paid the barber three silver coins. And, as quickly as they had arrived, they left.
The barber leaned against his chair and took a shuddering breath. The tower bells tolled again. Had it only been an hour since he opened the door? He stood like this for some time, eyes shut, beads of sweat gathering in the small of his back, until he told himself there was work to be done and a barber did not spend the day leaning against his chair.
He began to sweep the bright red hairs left behind by the count, mixed with Georgy’s gray hairs. Footsteps told him someone had arrived. He glanced up and saw Stepan, who kept his hair and beard very trim and so was one of the barber’s most-frequent customers.
The barber carefully tipped the swept-up hairs into a pail and set it aside.
He and Stepan greeted each other and spoke of the weather, the crops, the trade in livestock and other goods—everything but the barber’s daughter or her funeral. It only came up when Stepan was paying.
“They say Count Rozsa was in your shop today,” he said.
“And that when he left his hair had been cut.”
“That is the result of most men’s visits here.”
Stepan frowned a bit. “How could you have him in here after—”
“How could I not?”
“But then why let him live? You had blades at his neck for half an hour, no doubt.”
“And there were soldiers here with him. Elena has grown up motherless her whole life and her beloved older sister is dead now. Surely you don’t suggest she should grow up fatherless as well?”
Stepan shook his head. He opened his mouth as if to speak, then closed it and shook his head again.
A month later, several customers were waiting to have their hair cut when the Count and his soldiers—three of them this time—arrived. The soldiers made it clear that the Count would have his hair cut as soon as the barber was done with the gentleman already in the chair. Most of the other patrons chose to leave. Only Karol remained, sitting on a stool, his cataracted eyes staring at nothing.
There was no dialogue between the barber and the count. They simply took their places and acted out their parts.
The barber’s razor nicked the back of the count’s neck once, prompting the count to gasp. The soldiers, who were nearly napping on their feet in the summer heat, reached for their swords.
“My apologies,” the barber said as he daubed at the wound with a cloth, which he then tossed aside into another empty pail.
The count waved a negligent hand at his men, who went back to their former posture. The rest of the barbering proceeded without incident, and soon the count and soldiers were on their way.
Karol hobbled over to the chair as the barber swept up the loose hairs and threw them away.
“Bled him, did ya?”
The barber nodded distractedly and then told the old man that he had indeed nicked the count’s skin.
“A man in your position must be tempted to sink the knife much deeper.”
The barber explained, as he had before, that he did not wish to see his living daughter further abandoned.
“Pah,” Karol said. He spat on the floor. “So be more clever. Some poison on the razor next time, eh? He walks out of your shop fine and dies that night.”
“I would be suspected,” the barber replied. “A man dies of poison, they look for the person who had reason to want him dead. Now, let us speak no more of this. It makes me anxious, and that makes my hand tremble.”
Karol laughed but did not say another word.
On the first day of autumn, the barber opened up shop at his usual hour. It had been over a month since the count’s last visit and the barber wondered if the man had grown tired of his sport. Nevertheless, as he had on recent mornings, the barber lit a small fire and set water to boil. Whether the count visited or not, some customers would wish a warm drink.
On this day the count arrived with four soldiers, shortly before the shop was to close for the day. The other Georgy in town was the only other person in the shop and even he had not come to have his hair cut that day. Younger than either the barber or the barber’s childhood friend Georgy, he nevertheless enjoyed the barber’s company and would often come to sit for hours and talk. Today, he talked and drank tea.
This time, the barber’s hand did not slip and nick the count’s neck, and all was silent but for the snick-snick of the scissors.
The work done, the count stood. A chill evening wind blew through the store, kicking up some of the hair and tossing it around.
“Your Highness,” the barber said before the count walked away. “I have enough water left for one more cup of tea. Would you care for it before your homeward journey?”
The count smiled slightly and then tipped his head toward the barber. “That would be most obliging.”
The barber pulled the lone unused mug from a shelf. He scooped some leaves into the small steeping orb, placed it in the mug, and covered it over with the last of the hot water.
He took the mug to the count and handed it over. “Three minutes to brew,” he said.
One of the soldiers cleared his throat. “Your Highness, perhaps it would be best to not drink—”
The count tossed up a hand, silencing the man. “This barber,” he said, swirling the water in the mug as he spoke, “understands his position quite well.”
After another minute or two, the count drank the tea, taking the quite-warm liquid in several large gulps. He passed the mug back to the barber with a smile and gave a small, ironic, bow.
When they were alone again, the younger Georgy scolded the barber for giving the count the courtesy of a mug of tea.
“Georgy, every man needs to keep warm in this wind.”
The younger Georgy simply stared at the barber, then shook his head. “Maybe,” he said, “when I am as old as you, I will learn so much forgiveness.”
The barber closed up shop once Georgy had left. He took the mug the count had drank from, leaving traces of his saliva on the rim and in the dregs of the tea, into his small back room and set it on a counter.
From a small bin he drew a rag which had a reddish-brown streak in one spot. The barber took some scissors, not the ones that he used for cutting hair, and snipped out the stained piece of rag. He placed it in the mug.
Then, from a pail, he extracted a handful of bright red hairs. He set these down on the counter and carefully segregated any of the gray hairs which were among them. The bright red hairs went into the mug as well.
The barber did not need the slip of paper that the witch outside of town had given him. He had read it over and over every night before he had gone to sleep, from the evening of the fourth day after his daughter’s death until last night.
He struck a match and held it to the tip of the rag in the mug. The flame singed his fingers but he held it there until the cloth caught fire.
As the fire burned, he recited the words he had learned from the witch’s paper. Once, twice, three times. After the last syllable of the third intonation, he took a deep breath and blew the fire out, blew the magic away from the shop and to its target.
The barber’s shop was closed—as were all places of business—for three days following the count’s death in the blaze which ignited in his bedchamber.
On the morning of the fourth day, the barber came to his shop and stretched out the awning. He entered and drew water from the faucet for his teapot and set it to warming. Then, as the tower bells tolled outside, he opened the door so any who wished their hair cut could enter.
His childhood friend Georgy came first, as the barber had known he would.
“How is Elena?” Georgy asked, settling into the barber’s chair.
“Very well, thank you.”
“She is glad to see her sister’s murderer—”
The barber shushed Georgy, who laughed.
“Who will object to this description now, my old friend? You are too worried.”
The barber brushed his comb through Georgy’s hair, arranging it as he wanted before he would begin to cut. “Perhaps you are right.”
“Of course I am. And I am right as well that she—and you—are glad Count Rozsa is no longer among the living.”
“Yes, you are right.” The barber began to snip at his friend’s hair, first a few small cuts, and then more vigorously. “Please give my thanks again to your wife. What she provided was... most effective.”
Georgy grunted. He could not nod, for the barber was deep into his work.