A fight to the death with a bloodsucker. By Kathryn Harrison. Illustration by Janet Woolley
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The Independent Culture
"So, do people get run over by cars and then God, who is invisible, just picks them up from where they are all flat and bloody and he throws them into Heaven?" my daughter asks. "Is that what happens?" She holds out her hands, palms upturned in a gesture of inquiry and impatience.

Sarah's theories of the afterlife are marked by athleticism - sudden changes of spiritual status accomplished by God bouncing or kicking souls from one world to another. She's a defender of reincarnation, thinks of Heaven as a waiting room, and claims that women are impregnated when God hurls souls of the recently dead into empty female stomachs.

"Is that what you think happens?" I say. Sarah shrugs, drops her hands to her sides.

"I'm asking you," she says. "I know what I think."

I go on brushing my daughter's hair. We're standing before the window, looking out on a field bright with wildflowers. Arranged on the windowsill are the hair ornaments that Sarah has selected for the day: a set of pink hairclips, three green elastic ponytail holders, a fake tortoiseshell headband and two ribbons. In sum, many too many decorations for one small head.

I brush longer than I need to. The tangles are out and the brushing soothes me with its repetitive motion, like sewing or sweeping or fucking, late- night, too-tired-to-fuck-fucking.

"Hold still," I say to my daughter.

"I hate this," Sarah says.

"I know," I say. "Everyone does."

I gather the mass of my daughter's hair, pull it back over her shoulders. "Hold still," I say again. It's quixotic to embark on a French braid, without having a television to tranquillise my five-year-old daughter, but that's also what makes these braids so beautiful on a small, always moving head: the very impossibility of them. I pick up the first handful of hair and weave in sections from the side, moving down the back of her skull. An undetected snarl halts my progress, and I reach for the hairbrush, which falls from the windowsill. I hold the hair with one hand while I stoop to retrieve the brush.

"Did Daddy make a hole in you with his penis?" Sarah asks.

"No!" I say. "What do you mean?"

"Well, at school they said that babies come from seeds planted in the mother, and that the mother has an egg and that the fathers plant the seeds and that they do it with their penises; so what I mean is, is the penis like the little shovel thing that you use to make a hole before you plant a seed? That's what I mean."

"Oh," I say. "The fathers don't have to make a hole because the mothers have a place for the seed to go in. Everything is all ready for the seed."

"Is it your mouth? Do you swallow it and then it grows in your stomach?"

"No," I say. "It's the place between your legs. The seed goes in the same place that the baby comes out. We talked about this before." We've talked about it a lot, because this summer all we talk about is sex and death, something I'll regard with unexpected nostalgia when we reach the next of humankind's compelling topics: excrement.

As I braid, my fingers encounter something soft and slightly flabby just behind Sarah's right ear. A kernel of corn, I think. Every night in the country we've eaten corn, and the children attack it messily, shearing the bright-yellow buttons off the cob with their sharp little teeth so that half of them drop into their laps and onto the floor. I hold the unfinished braid in my left hand and search through Sarah's hair with my right. I've found corn kernels in the couch and in the beds - even in their shoes. The thing on Sarah's scalp is the size of a large kernel and has a stale, liverish yellow colour, but it doesn't brush away. I bend over to look more closely. It's a tick, so engorged that its colour has gone from brown to yellow: it has swallowed so much blood that it is pale with intemperance.

I drop the hair I'm holding. Involuntarily, my hand rushes to cover my mouth in a cinematic gesture of shock and revulsion, one I find absurd even in its helplessness. Sarah is engrossed in watching the woodchuck that lives by the compost heap - he's dragging off one of last night's corn-cobs - so I have a moment to collect myself in the bathroom before I have to gather what I need: tweezers, hydrogen peroxide, cotton balls.

Sarah's hair hangs to her waist and naturally attracts trouble: burrs and gum and pine tar and glue. There's not much that hasn't got stuck in it before. So why am I on my knees on the bath mat, tears dripping into my lap? "Don't be silly!" I would say if it had been Sarah who began to cry. "You're a big girl."

In the cluttered bathroom, toys and toiletries strewn over the floor, my three-year-old son looks up from his clandestine occupations. I can see only one of his eyes behind the big Superman mask he's wearing, its eye holes cut too far apart to accommodate both of his eyes simultaneously. Seeing that I'm too preoccupied to scold or