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
I noticed a cloth rice sack in the corner next to some
herbal medicine bottles and folded clothes. "Why are you
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
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. Ying Chang Compestine grew up in China and now lives in California with her husband and son. She is the author of the young adult story collection A Banquet for Hungry Ghosts, as well as several picture books for children and cookbooks for adults.