Mother picked up a stack of old newspapers from beside the stove. Carefully, she checked every page before laying it around a stool, setting two sheets with Chairman Mao’s pictures on the counter. Months earlier, a nurse had been sent to prison as an anti-Maoist just because she lit her stove with a newspaper page with Mao’s photo.
I noticed a cloth rice sack in the corner next to some herbal medicine bottles and folded clothes. “Why are you packing, Mom?”
Without answering me, she led me to the stool and raked her hard-toothed comb through my hair.
As each stroke yanked at my scalp, pain shot through my mosquito-chewed body. I clenched my teeth, not wanting to cry out. Were we going to a labor camp?
Before knowing that they kept Father in the jail nearby, I had wished they would send us to his camp, wherever it was. Now I didn’t want to leave. I wanted to be here in case they ever brought him back to the hospital.
Something cold drizzled through my hair. Within a second, my scalp burned. “I hope this will kill the lice,” Mother whispered. Her ox-bone comb scraped against my raw scalp.
I couldn’t bear any more of the pain and the itching.
“You are hurting me!” I shouted.
Stiffening my back, I waited for her to scold me for raising my voice and showing disrespect.
A moment later, she whispered, “Ling, your hair is too thick. The coal oil can’t kill all the lice.” She put down her comb and left the room.
Didn’t she hear me shouting? What was she planning to do now?
Mother returned with a pair of scissors and Father’s razor. “We have to shave your head.”
I jumped off the chair. “No! There must be another way!”
She took a step back. “I don’t know what else to do, Ling. I used up this month’s ration. I even emptied the lamp. If I don’t cut your hair, the lice will spread throughout the apartment.” She tilted the blue oil cup, showing me it was empty. We received two cups of coal oil each month. Without the oil, we’d have to live in the dark for the rest of the month. Now I hated myself for being caught and for falling asleep on the dirty mattress.
Seeing sadness in her eyes, I knew she wouldn’t cut my hair if she could find another way. As far back as I could remember, she had told me that ladies should let their hair grow.
“Do what you must!” I was shaking, trying to hold my despair inside, as I threw myself back into the chair. I didn’t care about being a lady. I wanted to be a mean dragon. More than anything, I wanted to stop the pain and itching. I thought of Chairman Mao’s wife Jiang Qing’s ugly short hair.