Under Dermis Wonderland

By Aholaah Arzah

It was a process of sufficient precision; the hair combed through and narrowly parted with a fine-toothed comb.  The ribbons of hair that resulted were then separated into thinner swathes yet by the weaving motion of the rat tail of the comb.  These slender strands were slathered in dye and folded into tidy foil packets. If even a single loathsome louse clung by the claw of one of its six legs to the shaft of one frizzled tri-colored hair, it would be seen. The resultant repugnance of such a discovery made in the refined realm of Salon Curlicue would be loudly indignant. So, Virginia could safely conclude that despite the innumerable potential opportunities for possible infection one was daily exposed to that today at least in this moment she did not have head lice. She needed the respite of these moments because regrettably the relief was only temporary.

Barely an hour later Virginia found herself scratching furiously at her scalp and examining the white flaky accumulation under her fingernails with the pocket sized 30 power magnifying glass she carried for this purpose. At this level of magnification it was still difficult to distinguish between the flakes of dry scalp now rolled into ovals by the drag of her nails over her skull and the pearlescent forms of the infamously “sesame seed” sized larva.

This was not a circumstance of hysterical obsession or not at least an unjustified one. There had been a time when this particular apprehension was outside even the most cursory tangential consideration. And then there had been that morning in bed when she cycled her legs into a stretch and felt something bite into the flesh of her hip. Prying loose a turquoise colored plastic stick-on nail was disorientating. Someone else had been sleeping in her bed.  After pointlessly confronting her teenage daughter, who denied all knowledge of the nail’s origin with the same fiercely adamant bravado  she had displayed at age seven when accused of lighting small fires in her bedroom while standing in the haze of smoke holding the matches, Virginia resigned herself to losing sleep over the possibilities.

It was during a work seminar later that week that she first found herself clutching up a handful of hair, fingertips idly agitating her scalp. Not a socially acceptable gesture, the checked impulse gradually grew more and more irresistible as her scalp began to twitch and shudder. Outside in the parking lot peering into the rear view mirror, frantically scrubbing her scalp, she could see tiny alien forms clinging to the hair shafts of her bangs.

What followed was a long summer of miserable vigil and futile effort. She shampooed, combed through with a nit comb, shampooed and combed through again in a cycle of days, weeks and then months as it became apparent that the lice had taken up permanent residence unperturbed by any of the over the counter poisons.  When the accumulation of toxic chemicals left her convinced of inevitable brain tumors Virginia switched to buying expensive herbal preparations online.  When those failed she resorted to rumors. She dyed her hair black, coated it in Vaseline and mayonnaise to smother the lice.  For several weeks she combed through a skin cream that when heated with a blow dryer formed something like a plastic seal over her head and during all the months of self-treatment, she washed her sheets and clothing in hot water and dried them until they thinned and scorched, crackling like old parchment.  The mattress and pillows had been replaced and were now sealed into multiple layers of thick glassine plastic that snapped and fractured like the crust on a crème brulee with each shift in sleep.

The lice persisted.  They had mutated during their brief but rapidly successive and chemically exposed generations, Virginia began to suspect, beyond the limitations of predictable life and death cycles.  If she had believed in a god, a vengeful god, who took some satisfaction in tormenting the puny and already mostly miserable living, this would certainly qualify as a plague. She lived in fear of having her loathsome plight discovered by the collateral infection of co-workers or clients.  She was compelled to wrap the head rests and upholstery in her car in plastic wrap, to carry an extra roll to drape movie theater seats and restaurant booths but everyone around her seemed immune to the infestation and so oddly oblivious to what must be perceived as her unusual behavior. The anticipated confrontation that never arrived, the absence of an intervention gradually pried her loose from obligation, from association, separated her from previous connection to family and friends.  They could not appreciate her plight, they were empty of empathy.

The lice had evolved to be her particular demonic companions.  At night they frolicked over the tender terrain of her savaged scalp reducing sleep to a series of fitful convulsions.  When small mounds of inflamed flesh began to erupt in the bared patches between the remaining thatches of hair, Victoria suspected that the lice had begun to tunnel and excavate, creating their own under dermis wonderland.  The ooze that accumulated after an irresistible nail raking congealed into amber minarets.  When Virginia tilted her head to a certain angle the light reflected from their crystalline structure sparkled like a thousand tiny jewels. She lost long stretches of time enthralled by their minute perfection.  The arduous months of tribulation in which she endeavored so fruitlessly now seemed a necessary discipline, an unconscious cultivation, a perfection of purpose.  Out of a lifetime of lassitude and rote accommodation she felt something deep within her gathering, surging, rising electric and transcendent.  She was not a drone, not a cog, not indistinguishable and insignificant.  She was a veritable queen, a queen and a palace. She was an entire kingdom.  She was a singular hive seething with voracious greed and splendid proliferation.  Considering now the purposeful cultivation of mites, of myriad microbes, Victoria knew herself to be an incubator of endless potential.


Aholaah Arzah wrested her MFA in Creative Writing from Goddard.  Her poems, essays, short fictions and visuals have occurred or are impending in numerous publications including: Short, Fast and Deadly, Crab Creek Review, elimae, Pitkin Review, and The Bellingham Review.  Her essay “Ring Cycle” received Longshot Magazine’s feature award.  She buys local in Port Townsend, Washington.

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