I caught head lice in a kindergarten epidemic that had the school nurse knocking on Miz Goforth’s trailer door to check our class with her portable magnifying lamp every day for a month, and though I don’t remember much from my childhood, I easily recall the feel of that spindly plastic comb on my skin and, later, of my body bent over our garage’s dump sink, hair cascading forward while my mother—after warning me that if one drop of the lice shampoo touched my eyes I’d suffer side effects up to and including blindness—poured poison on my combed-out scalp while I whimpered in terror, and though someone must have used the word “kill” when they explained what the chemical rinse would do to the infestation that I harbored, I don’t think the deaths that I imagined were those of living and kill-able animals—“lice” sounded like “rice,” so perhaps I imagined my hair dirty with food crumbs (usually the case with me, anyway)—but regardless of what I understood, that’s exactly what was afoot: the killing of multiple animals and their un-hatched offspring happening on me, because of me—my body as animal killing floor, despite my bedroom of stuffed critters that I couldn’t bear to leave alone for fear they’d “go sad,” and despite the tears I shed for my mother’s dead cat, Cutty Sark, whom I’d never even met, and despite the still-living cats I spoke to like siblings, even the diseased strays that lived in our ditch, and despite the countless lizards and ladybugs I wanted to cover with my hands and hold as they went about their business in the same ditch (perhaps this whole lice saga traces back to the hours I spent in ditches), and despite my mother’s insistence that I must never “be ugly” to any creature, and despite my grandfather’s highest praise of sweet girls who “couldn’t hurt a fly,”—these were, indeed animals making homes in my scalp; and now the worlds of my school and family united to halt operations until these animals died, the plan set in motion seconds after that kind school nurse petted around my head and then gathered my hair in a cafeteria lady cap, gently prompting me to get my lunchbox and satchel and follow her outside Miz Goforth’s trailer to wait in isolation for my stepdad, who had called off of his shift at the Dupont plant (which he didn’t do even on Christmas Eve if it fell on his rotation) to pick me up in his Datsun 280Z, which I never rode in because it lacked seatbelts, and now the beltless bucket seat was shrouded in drop cloths, a brown paper bag resting on the center console with a bottle of toxic shampoo inside (toxic thanks to Pyrethroid, the synthetic redux of the chrysanthemum flower, which for eons has emitted an organic venom from its seed casings [seeds that, co-incidentally, look a lot like the tiny nits they are so hell-bent on snuffing]—for nature has taught the human animal to kill in myriad ways, with its evolved acts of camouflage, weaponry, gas warfare, parasitism, suffocation, electricity, strategy, dumb luck, and of course experimentation, ultimately prompting us to mimic biological acts of killing until we yield our own synthetic murder logic, which we then bottle and deploy so our kind can thrive in ways both miniscule and calamitous): “We’ll get ya fixed up, Goober,” my stepdad said, though he was too afraid of my thick tresses and hair-trigger pain response to begin the brushing and dousing himself, so I played forts with the cardboard stacks in our garage until my mother, much more merciless with the comb, pulled her Oldsmobile Cutlass up the driveway; and when I heard the engine I hid in an empty refrigerator box, suddenly afraid of what all this attention might breed, and as she stopped her Cutlass in the stall next to the 280Z, my stepdad walked behind it and yanked down the garage door, and for the few moments before my mother shut off her ignition, we were all three—or three hundred thousand if you include the lice, the harmless demodex mites on our skin, the dust mites in the air, the fleas ferried in on the cats, the countless microscopic arthropods in the cardboard—there inside the closed space, waiting, while the car pumped carcinogens into the air surrounding our fragile bodies.

Elena Passarello is the author of two essay collections, Let Me Clear My Throat and Animals Strike Curious Poses

Photo by Kim Adrian