I wrote this story for the first Short Story Day Africa and won the Flash Fiction contest. We had to write on the theme of 'creepy crawlies,' so I wrote a story inspired by a true life encounter with headlice at Rhodes University. Whoever reads this thinks something different happened at the end...what do you read into the ending? I'd love to hear.
White Collar Parasite
4am is harvest time. Her husband’s breathing has long since settled into the consistent clicking at the back of his throat, signalling his deepest sleep. Diffused light illuminates the bathroom where she crouches over a bath tub already speckled with a colony of scuttling, sunflower seed shaped pests. In her hand, further still writhe and push against the confines of a metal toothed comb.
The house is silent save for the popping noise made as each creature- fattened by her blood - bursts between her manicured thumb and forefinger. The action is wholly satisfying and the product of her labour drips a burgundy rivulet as far down as her wrist.
They are better off dead. If she has learnt anything from this recent affliction it is that head lice jump. Even when combed out, confined or poisoned, they somehow manage to break free and leap into your clothing, your linen, your hair. They are cockroaches of the scalp and have inhabited hers with a feverish bloodlust.
Her nightly harvests only seem to make way for fresh infestation. The origins of this continued torture remain unknown. She has spent over two months indoors since she lost the baby, finding calm in the monotony of cleaning every surface. Her husband has been tolerant of her fixation. “A third miscarriage is one too many,” he glumly informs concerned friends. Besides, they are sufficiently wealthy to afford a little madness.
If her madness was dignified in any way, this has been eradicated by the onset of the pests. Like her thoughts, they flicker across her skull at random with no destination, their constant movement and sheer volume pushing her to a panic and threatening to release the scream clogged at the back of her throat.
She fears he will find out that she is sullied, infected. Although she may be barren, she remains beautiful. She cannot bear fruit but she still can blossom. Moments with him have become a careful concealing act. She has learned to scratch her burning scalp while running her fingers through her hair or seize runaways that jump onto the dinner table with exaggerated gestures. There have been a few close calls, but it is incredible what you don’t see when you’re not looking for it.
6am-they wake up before she does, shifting and feeding. It is better to be awake, do something to take her mind off it. She goes to the kitchen and prepares her husband an espresso.
“Morning babe,” he greets her.
“I’m going to be a bit late home tonight. I’ve got to stop by colleague’s house to pick up some documents. Poor thing, her kids have been infected with lice for months, and now are at home with chicken pox! The chicken pox seems to be healing nicely but the lice refuses to clear, damn things are impossible to kill.”
He runs his fingers through his perfect shock of raven hair, carefully pressing his thumb and forefinger together as he kisses her goodbye.