The itching begins at night. Fire on my scalp, ears aflame. I was dreaming about butterflies and barbed wire. I see the image: sky thick with thousands, if not millions, of butterflies – red, orange, blue – unmoving, and yet suspended in air. I can’t remember how the barbed wire figured into it.
I scratch my head and pull away with skin beneath my fingernails. I feel the skin, cannot see the skin, because it is night and it is dark. I walk to the bathroom, careful not to drop whatever it is I have found, although I have suspicions. For a moment, I rest my head on the doorframe, feel the mezuzah there—made of Jerusalem stone—a gift from my father. I bend to kiss it—we are not traditional and I do not believe in god or miracles.
I flip the light-switch. Squint.
There, wriggling under my nail, is a louse. I’m sure of it because as a child I had lice—to the chagrin of my perpetually cleaning mother—numerous times. I recognize the primordial creature, the semi-transparent outline of its body, its abdominal undulations. It wants to suck more of my blood and I am keeping it from its life-sustaining task.
I am appalled. Disgusted. Surprised. I am not a teacher, nor do I have children. I did not put on any hats or rest my head on any stranger’s pillows. How could I have contracted such a vile thing? My husband, still asleep in bed, would be horrified. His snores fill the air and the blowing HEPA air filter captures the sound and sucks it in.
I rinse my finger under the cold of the tap, watch the insect slide down into the drain. There are more, I know. And what? What then? It is two in the morning and am I to drive to the store, purchase a bottle of noxious lice-killing shampoo and do the whole thing now? Smile sheepishly to the poor guy working the pharmacy’s graveyard shift? Mumble something about a young afflicted daughter?
I remember my mother sitting outside on the porch with a fine-toothed comb. She pulled and tugged and tweezed and all the while muttered about the filth. I could wake my husband, but he has work in the morning. He must have contracted the vermin too.
I have to tell him, of course.
Besides it is winter and too cold to sit barefoot on the splintered wooden stairs outside waiting for all the parasites and their eggs to be pulled out of my head.
“Just cut it off,” my mother had said. “Cut it all off.”
The infestation has begun. I go to the kitchen for water, trying not to shake my head too much. No use getting the house thick with insects. I come back and sit on the toilet, hard and cold on my thighs. In my throat, the water is cool and metallic. I run my tongue along my gums, feel the bumpiness of my teeth. No, I have not bitten anything. There is no blood.
Surely the creatures are in the folds of my sheets, the fibers of carpet. In the merino of my sweaters. In the strands of my DNA.
Not much I can do tonight, I decide. Back in bed I scratch and dig at my scalp. Every bite an insult. Every twitch a fear. I fight the horrible things by rubbing my head against the linen pillowcase until I fall asleep.
The butterflies do not return.
I wake on a wooden pallet and have no pillow. I am lying under a scrap of wool and it tears at me as I sleep with every fitful move. Pieces of yellowed grass cling to it, as does the pickled odor of decaying things. Outside I hear the pastoral sound of a rooster and then a gunshot. And I remember I am in barrack E. Probably in the woods of Bavaria, only it’s not the woods anymore. Unless we are all creatures of the night and wild. In a way, we are. I scratch at my head and find nothing below my shoulders. My hair has been cut. Shorn. Shaven. I can feel the uneven tufts of it. I feel at my wrists, my bones. Protruding clavicle. My legs are like kindling that won’t catch a flame.
In my gut, hollow, something deep and thick—but also empty and impossibly thin. The lice is not the enemy. They are the only thing telling me I have blood in my body. That I am alive at all.
I take a louse on my fingertip. Say, “Hello.” Call it Max. Place it back on my head.
And again, I wake. And again. And again. And sometimes I am safe and other times I am not. Splinters of light through the window slats. Soft bedsheets tucked around my body. The lumbering snore of my husband. And then the suck as that familiar sound is taken away.
In the bathroom, I look in the mirror. Sunlight hazes the room, all soft. I turn the overhead light on. I wince but need the brightness to see. My head does not itch. I scratch. Pull at my hair. When I take my hand away, I see only creamy flakes of dead skin. No spindly insect legs twitching in the air. The glass of water is on the counter, empty. Not a dream, exactly.
In the morning I tell my husband. Ask him to check my head. Anything? I ask. Nothing, he says, bewildered. The phantom lice have left. They will not haunt me in the day. I reach up to scratch. He takes my hand into his own. Perhaps they will return, but they are not real. Not on my head. Today. This head. Now. Occasionally, I itch. I say, I know you are not far away and that you could come back any time. And you are just reminding me.