He left their little eggs behind on the piano keys and the keyboard of his laptop—nobody could guess what sort of dust this was. He liked to pick them out of his hair. Trapped between two human fingers dragging it ruthlessly from its resting spot, the incubating insect slid down the pole of hair like a firefighter descending to his truck at the sound of the alarm.
You can’t tame a louse, even if you do let it out to graze on your head. You can’t explain to it that it has to play dead to go unnoticed and not wave its arms and legs helplessly when it lands on the porcelain of the bathtub. Death is incomprehensible even to a louse.
At school they have advanced to the Last Resort. The enforcers are called lousemothers. They are the mothers who inspect the children’s heads—every class has its own. You didn’t get special treatment if your mom became a volunteer, and anyway, in your case, that was out of the question.
The first time they took him and his father by surprise. A woman they didn’t know stopped them at his classroom door. When she explained her mission, his father turned pale. He was afraid not that he would be caught with lice, his father explained to the boy later, but how Mom would take it. Mom took it badly even though they didn’t find lice on him that day. It wasn’t even about the lice—she railed again and again, turning more and more red with anger every time—but about his school sufficing with such ineffectual inspections in the first place. Had they known, they never would’ve even enrolled him in this school.
“And how do they inspect you? Go on, tell me, how do they inspect you.”
“With a pencil.”
“A sharpened pencil? Are they joking? Are they trying to get a rise out of me?”
The reason they used a pencil with a rounded nose was to make it seem to the children a little more like a game. Could they avoid covering their small skulls in pencil marks? The boy had told his mother the whole story to lighten the mood, but the very idea that they had pitched lice hunting to them as a game made her turn an even deeper shade of red.
By the time it was his turn to be searched again, the pencil had developed a gleaming, smooth finish from its many rounds around the classroom. He heard it moving through his hair, like a little plastic shovel that’s been worn down by struggle with the sand. His ears weren’t used to the sound, nor his nose to the smell: the lousemother combing his hair wore the same clothes she’d worn yesterday, doused with a perfume that had spoiled. Something about the way in which she held his head still, setting her hand at the base of his skull and pressing two fingers into his nape, reminded him of a hairdresser who used to come to the house to cut his hair when he was younger.
“You’re not the first and you won’t be the last,” the lousemother pronounced finally, laying her tool down to rest. Everyone seemed to be saying this, yet they all meant something different by it. You’re not the first and you won’t be the last little genius, teased his sister Violeta. (“Little geniuses can catch lice?” she’d ask him now, with a wry smile.) You’re not the first and you won’t be the last child to have a hypersensitive mom, said his father. Anyway, this hypersensitivity wasn’t unrelated to the fact that he had such a great aptitude for math, his father would add.
The boy’s cellphone rang before he got home. His father had been notified, but he didn’t sound angry. Why is contracting head lice still so common? His father had explained this to him last time too. Immunization. He contracted head lice at a young age to build resistance to other body lice, which were actually dangerous, and which he’d have contracted as an adult if he were to go, say, to jail, or war. This whole business of lice hunting however was ridiculous and didn’t solve the problem. (The boy had heard this before too; his father was repeating himself.) The proof lay in what the lousemother had said, You’re not the first and you won’t be the last. Despite their routine inspections, the school didn’t manage to rid all the children of lice. Before they got off the phone, his father suggested the boy prepare himself something to eat and make use of his free time by playing the violin.
Certainly, his father would find a way to break it to his mother gently. But if Mom came home before she found out, then he would have to tell her himself. He would have to make sure not to agitate her. She would assume he was sick—that’s why they had sent him home, because he was sick. But his mother was as disgusted by illness as she was by head lice. (How many times have I told you? Don’t walk around barefoot, you’ll catch a cold. How many times have I told you? Don’t play with sick kids. How many times have I told you? Don’t stick your head so close to others’… )
The boy put off playing the violin. But the more he put it off, the better the chances she’d catch him playing when she walked in. So, he wasn’t sick, she would realize…
Mom liked the sound of the violin.
Instead of picking up the violin, he gets on the internet. Science waits at his fingertips. Singing Dunes. That would be his excuse for not having been practicing. An avalanche is for the sand pile what the bow is for a cello. The sound waves the avalanche creates as it tumbles down the slope get trapped in a dry layer of sand that acts like the resonator of a string instrument. The secret is that underneath all the dry sand, there remains sand that is still wet. When sound hits and reflects off of it, it attains otherworldly frequencies. The dunes’ string instruments are simply sand piles that have begun to dry out. What sand pile would want to sing during monsoon season?
Now it was dark outside. On Wednesdays, his sister came home late. Upon entering the house his mom said nothing to him at all. She went and shut herself inside her bedroom. He decided to go get his violin. He started playing Boccherini’s minuet, a piece he knew well.
“Will you stop that scratching?” came Mom’s voice, from inside.
She meant the violin. Though in the meantime, she’d probably heard about the lice, which would explain why she was mad. Now someone would have to clean him. And the music wasn’t helping, because unlike the little kids who, enchanted, followed the Pied Piper of Hamelin contentedly, lice couldn’t care less about music.
He put his violin aside and went into the bathroom. He knew that Mom could hear him from her bedroom. After hearing the bathroom door shut, she’d be listening closely. He opened the left drawer under the sink and started moving things around; meanwhile the little metal comb, with the aerodynamic appearance it had when it was clean, lay right on top. He threw it in the tub from a modest height. A loud clang would only make things worse. The sound of metal striking porcelain could not be mistaken. This, combined with the absence of a flush, would’ve had—with a little luck—the desired effect. Mom would assume he’d shut himself inside the bathroom to clean out the lice on his own.
By the time Violeta had arrived home, he’d finally come out of the bathroom. Violeta was on her cell phone when she opened the door. How is the little genius? she asked him merely with a glance from across the room. Then she made herself comfortable on the other end of the sofa. The television was on, loud. Violeta was still on the phone, speaking in a low voice and in code. So even if he or their mom had been eavesdropping, neither of them could have made out what she was saying. Some time went by like this. Then they shuddered from a sudden avalanche: the sliding doors behind the television that usually remained shut were opening. Mom had materialized between them. She wore striped pyjamas like those worn around a prison yard.
Mom started to yell at Violeta. “You will be the one to clean up his filth! I’ve spent my whole life cleaning you… You disgust me.”
They heard the line on Violeta’s phone drop.
He and Violeta locked themselves in the bathroom.
“You cried, admit it!” she tried to tease him, but when he wouldn’t bite, she stopped. “We’re not going to call Dad,” she said, determined, having him kneel onto the wet bathmat.
The nit comb was still lying at the end of the tub. Violeta reached for it noiselessly. She managed to pass it through his hair and then immediately turned on the faucet. Lifting his head just a little, he could see the fountain of water as it cascaded over the comb. It wasn’t enough to carry away whatever was lodged between its teeth. His gaze rose to the bracelets on Violeta’s wrist and to her fingernails, painted in a dark color that was now chipping at the edges. Chipped nail polish—his sister thought—betrayed an artistic temperament. Violeta obliged him to bend over again, passed the comb through his hair once more, and turned on the faucet. This time she let the water run for longer.
It wouldn’t last long, that was for certain. Violeta would quickly get bored and tell him that the whole delousing process was pointless. It was a vicious cycle. Even if she did manage to clean him up, he would just catch them all over again from someone else at school. They would keep sucking his blood for years. They feed on blood, hair, and dead skin, said the label on the lotion.
Violeta put down the comb after the third try. The water running forcefully down the spout had still not pulled the last little black things down the drain.
“In any case, at some point they just disappear,” sounded her voice over the water. “You don’t believe me, but it’s true,” he heard her say again. “Sometime during puberty they disappear on their own without any special shampoos or lotions. I thought I’d never escape. I buried dozens of mine in school books—I stuffed them deep inside the gutters. I had hundreds of abortions. The most innocent-seeming abortion in the world, unpeeling their eggs from your hair. Until one day it was over. By then I’d gotten so used to them that I hardly noticed I had stopped scratching.”
He didn’t believe this, either, but he kept quiet.
If his sister was interested in physics, he’d explain to her how sand dunes that’d started to go dry could play the cello. And how a comb could produce sound effects just by chafing against strands of hair—the hair-chords. But Violeta was dreadful at science; she wanted to be an actress. Now, she asked him to bend over again and she started washing him with regular shampoo, which definitely would have no effect on the lice.
He surrendered to her touch, for the first time with a vague urge to cry.
[ Keywords: hypersensitivity / string instruments / siblings ]
“Louse, Ψείρα” is excerpted from Dimitra Kolliakou’s Insect Alphabet (2018), winner of the 2019 Greek State Prize for the short story. When Kolliakou first published Insect Alphabet she intentionally refrained from categorizing it as a novel or a short story collection, preferring to leave more room for the reader’s own interpretation. Because Insect Alphabet has twenty-four chapters, organized according to the Greek alphabet—where each chapter corresponds to an insect beginning with that letter—I wanted to preserve the integrity of the Greek by setting each title in both languages, where feasible. This way the reader brushes up repeatedly against the Greek. The sense of defamiliarization, which after all lies at the heart of translation, felt like an important experience for me to honor. In this book, especially, acknowledging difference matters. Insofar as each chapter also reads as an independent short story, there is no central protagonist who matters most, just many separate characters brushing up against each other whose experiences matter equally.
Each chapter’s seemingly independent narrative also centers on a meaningful convergence between insects and people in a way that ironically hints at the parallels between life in microcosm (insects) and macrocosm (humans) in order to bring out the inextricable affinities that bind humankind daily, socially and environmentally, with other organisms. A widower turns obsessively to beekeeping. Two siblings tiptoe around their mother’s temper just like the lice on the younger boy’s scalp. A precocious teenage girl, bullied and marginalized, finds hope in the communal lifestyle of ants. This is a book that curiously, microscopically examines multiculturalism, familial relationships, biological instincts, and the ways in which our given language might falter at climactic moments.
On a stylistic level, my challenge in translating Kolliakou’s prose lay in its precision and succinctness, as well as the ability of Greek to be abrupt without sounding curt or incomplete. I sometimes had to soften the transitions between sentences—although, here, too, I saw an opportunity to retain, on occasion, the sense of estrangement one feels upon encountering the other.
This is not unrelated to Kolliakou’s intention: the epigraph to Insect Alphabet opens with, “My dear Europe.” This address frames the book as if it were an open letter to Europe and its citizens, but not just any Europe, a version of “Europe which is vulnerable, which is lacking in openness,” as Kolliakou said in an interview with Greek magazine Athens Voice. After completing her studies in classical philology and linguistic theory in Athens and Edinburgh, Kolliakou reveled in the cosmopolitanism of Europe, moving often and self-identifying as a “stranger,” admittedly “a choice which ultimately cannot have been random,” she said. The more familiar one gets with defamiliarizing experiences, the more multiplicity and texture one’s experience attains. The more sensitively we come to perceive the strangeness of our own routines, the eccentricity of our singular lives, the more supple and tolerant we can become of difference and change.
Dimitra Kolliakou (b. 1968) grew up in Athens and she lives and works in Paris. She has been awarded many prizes for her works of fiction, including the Short Story State Literary Award and the Anagnostis literary prize for Insect Alphabet, (Αλφαβητάρι Εντόμων, Patakis Publishers, 2018). Her most recent book is the novel Αταραξία (Ataraxia, Patakis Publishers, 2022).
Eleni Theodoropoulos grew up in Athens, Greece. She writes essays and translates from Modern Greek. She is currently translating Insect Alphabet by Dimitra Kolliakou and is a PhD student in Comparative Thought & Literature at Johns Hopkins University.