The Pharaoh and the Hot Comb

Old drawing of a female Egyptian Pharaoh with her crown removed.
Old drawing of a female Egyptian Pharaoh with her crown removed.

Holding a bronze mirror to her face, Hatshepsut plowed an ivory comb through her hair. Over a season ago, only scattered peppercorn tufts remained once she shaved her head clean. Those tufts would soon grow into one thick black bush. That may have cushioned her scalp against her bed’s headrest or the many crowns she needed to wear as Pharaoh of Egypt, but dense woolly hair could also draw in swarms of head lice. Her comb must have caught hundreds of the tiny monsters by now judging from the dusty stuff between its teeth. Hatshepsut grimaced from the thought.

“Preparing yourself for the hairdresser, Your Majesty?” Hatshepsut’s plump old Vizier said as he waddled towards her boudoir’s entrance.

Hatshepsut put the comb and mirror down on a counter. “If only I didn’t have to keep him waiting so long,” Hatshepsut said. “There’s no way I can get all the nits out of this jungle.”

“That’s why I keep telling you to let him take care of that,” the Vizier said. “That’s his job in the first place! You shouldn’t burden yourself with his work.”

“But I can make it easier for him. It must be tedious labor, combing and cutting other people’s hair all day.”

The Vizier laughed. “No more tedious than all the peasants’ toiling on your tombs, my Pharaoh. Speaking of the hairdresser, I’m sorry to say he’s come down with a bad cough today.”

“How bad is it?” Fear for her old hairdresser chilled Hatshepsut’s veins.

“I don’t know, but the good news is that I have found a substitute for the time being. You know the servant girl Zoe?”

Hatshepsut knew she had employed a number of Greek servants at her palace grounds, but royalty like her couldn’t interrupt their many chores just to get to know them better. She shrugged. “What does she have to do with hairdressing?”

“She apparently has some skill at it, so I have entrusted her to take the job over.” The Vizier’s weak smile reverted to a frown. “Is that all right with you, my lady?”

Hatshepsut ran her fingers through her hair. “But she’s Greek! Greeks don’t have hair like our people do. She couldn’t possibly know how to style our kind of hair.”

“That’s what I thought at first too, but she claims to know a way around that. Speaking of whom, here she comes.”

The Vizier left the boudoir to make way for a young olive-skinned girl who lugged with her a burning brazier. Firelight flickered on her raven hair’s loose curls which contrasted with the Pharaoh’s woolly bush.

“What’s that for?” Hatshepsut asked.

Zoe set the brazier on the floor and whipped out her own comb, a bronze tool attached to a wooden handle unlike Hatshepsut’s equivalent. “Do you know what a hot comb is, my lady?” she said.

“So that’s what your holding. I’ve never heard of it.” Hatshepsut glanced down at the brazier again. “You’re not going to put it in that flame, are you?”

Zoe squatted and hovered the metal comb over the fire. Hatshepsut’s heart drummed under her chest as perspiration beaded her brow. She recoiled against the wall away from the brazier.

“I’ve done this several times before,” Zoe said. “You’ve nothing to fear, Your Majesty. Sit still and promise me you won’t flinch.”

“First tell me what on earth you’re doing!” Hatshepsut said.

Zoe smiled. “Just smoothing out some kinks in your hair.” She yanked Hatshepsut off the wall and shoved her onto a chair. “That’ll make it easier for me to work it.”

The Greek servant girl raised the hot comb towards the back of the Pharaoh’s hair. Though the approaching blade baked her neck’s nape like a noontime desert sun, Hatshepsut banged her shivering shins together. She clenched her hands onto her seat’s edge to suppress her desire to sprint out of the boudoir.

The hot comb caught her hair in its burning teeth. The heat seared to her scalp as Zoe pushed and pulled with her tool.

Hatshepsut gnashed her teeth together, growling like a leopard in pain, as tears gushed from her eyes. With her other hand the Greek girl pinned her squirming mistress down on the shoulder.

“Stop it!” Hatshepsut said. “I command you to stop!”

Zoe only pushed down on her harder while combing. “Promise me, you’ll like the results!” she shouted over the Pharaoh’s squealing.

Hatshepsut thrust an elbow into her breast, knocking her off. The hot comb fell from Zoe’s grip onto her sandaled foot. The Greek youth screamed out a vulgar curse which echoed between the boudoir’s walls as the comb’s blade singed her skin. While Zoe stamped around the room wailing, Hatshepsut snatched the comb and tossed it into a nearby pot.

“Why did you do that?” Zoe said. She swung a fist at the Pharaoh.

Hatshepsut dodged this attack. “What were you thinking? What did you do to my hair?”

She grabbed the mirror and held it up to her face. Her hair, once a frizzy ball, now hung straight down where Zoe had combed it, covering Hatshepsut’s neck and ears. Her deep brown face flushed one shade paler.

“You straightened my hair,” Hatshepsut said. “You made my hair straight as a baboon’s!”

“I thought it would make it easier for me to work with,” Zoe said. She knelt on the ground before her Pharaoh and broke down into sobbing. Her cheeks now glistened as wet with tears as Hatshepsut’s. “I am so sorry, my lady. Please have mercy on me!”

Hatshepsut took in several deep sighs to quell her inner fury. No matter what Zoe may have done to her hair, seeing the young Greek servant girl so distressed speared her heart with sympathy.

“I’ll give you one chance to right your wrong,” Hatshepsut said. She picked up a shaving knife from the boudoir’s counter. “Take it all off. Hopefully it’ll grow back woolly as ever.”

Never again would the Pharaoh experience the horror that would go down in history as the hot comb.


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