I’ve never been particularly brave.
While I idolized the heroics of the X-men in comics as a young lad, and the chivalry and gallantry of King Arthur and his knights who preferred their tables to be generally round, my own actions and emotions ran on meeker lines. And often my fears were products of my own overactive imaginings.
Coming home from school one fine day, I remember seeing an ant hill teeming with ants. Hundreds of the little scampering things, a seeming flood of them pour out. I ran home in a panic and spent the rest of the week waiting for the ant-pocalypse to arrive, as I knew it inevitably would. My dreams were of me drowning under a sea of many-legged, antennae-waving soldiers.
Sometimes walking home on the dirt road by my house, I could glimpse Sasquatch through the trees, his hairy, menacing frame flitting hungrily through the bushes and branches. I would arrive home wild-eyed and out of breath, pushing the sliding glass door behind me with relief, confident than even an eight-foot monster couldn’t violate the sanctity of a door well shut.
Then there was of course the monster under the bed, which I was far too well acquainted with. His brother, Monster In Closet, was also a frequent tormentor of mine.
But perhaps you learn to discard, or at least temper these irrational fears when you are faced with a real horror. If that is so, then I can credit my current ability to open the closet without screaming and to notice ants swarming without expecting the end of days, with a trip to Canada when I was young.
My father drove the old Jeep Wagoneer along a dusty summer road while my brother and I fought in the back. I’m sure my mother by that point had pretty much had it with us; the road trip up to Bella Cool, British Columbia has started from our home in Ashland with a stopover at my grandmother’s house in Portland.. My brother and I were not good at getting along when we had lots of space between us. So with just a narrow expanse of vinyl seating, any petty excuse became a valid reason for outright war.
In addition to this, it was the middle of August, at least ninety degrees as the sun beat down. I remember the dust from the road coated the windows forming small drifts along the frame. The windshield had twin arcs cleared through the yellow haze coating the rest of the view.The wipers had grudgingly cleared away the clouds of dirt that seemed to be all around us. So we sweltered and sweat and bickered. And the Jeep drove on.
I remember at some point the back window blew out, likely from a stray rock kicked up from a passing truck. We cleaned out the bits of squarish safety glass from the door frame as best we could, then shrugged and carried on. Bella Coola was a long drive.
At some point, we stopped in a clearing that was straight out of travel books, postcard perfect: green forest surrounded a blue lake under a clear sky that beckoned to our dry and dusty bodies. My brother, always the first and braver of us, stripped his shirt off and splashed into the water. I was more cautious (lake monsters, such as Nessie, were primary on my mind), but quickly the dry, dusty heat of the trip was too much for me and I ran in after him, splashing wildly.
If you know young boys, or have been one, or are currently one, you will know that you can’t have more than one boy in a lake without a war of some sort breaking out. It starts with splashing and some laughing and yelling. For my brother and I, it quickly escalated to us ripping up large swatches of the slimy green lake weed growing in huge fields under the water, and slinging it at each other.
This was the height of entertainment. Better than a snowball fight, as one doesn’t get cold. Better than a rubber-band war, as it doesn’t sting when you get hit. The cool green weeds were soft, slimy and refreshing on sun-baked skin. A quick grab under the water brought up fistfuls of the stuff, and we hurled volleys at each other like feuding lords.
I don’t remember exactly how, but I do know at some point my brother stopped, brushed at his arms wildly, and screamed something at me as I let fly my latest barrage. I, being younger and usually disadvantaged in any battle, felt pride that I seemed to have him on the run. Indeed, I saw him run out of the lake like he was being chased by a school of Great White Sharks. I giddily screamed after him, exultant in my victory.
He looked back at me when he was out of the water, dancing about, scrubbing at his arms and legs wildly, and yelling at me something I couldn’t process. Slowly I came to understand he wasn’t running from me. He was running from something in the lake.
In that moment my inner gibbering coward took full control; if something was enough to scare my older brother, it must be something horrific indeed. I did not look back, but rather sprinted out of the water. I believe I probably hydroplaned getting out of there, so fast was my fear-driven flight.
Once to the safety of the shore, I looked back to see what horror was chasing me, but saw only clear blue water, rippling from my recent exit. I looked questioningly at my brother, intending to convey the adolescent version of “WTF?”.
My brother, however, stared back with wild eyes, scraping at his arms. I then saw him pick a small green thing off his forearm and throw it to the ground,. Arms clear, you continued on to his bare legs, addressing them with the same scrutiny.
Slowly I processed what I was seeing. And I looked down at my own arms with a dawning horror. Small, light-green curves dotted my skin. It looked like bits of the lake weed we had been fighting with. I wiped them off, but they didn’t budge. I picked at one of the small things, and as I pulled, it stretched, remaining stuck to my skin by one of its tiny ends, which I was sure at that point housed impossible massive sets of rotating teeth.
Growing up, movies and cartoons prepared us for some of the primary fears one must deal with in life. Quicksand was one. Leeches were another, but until this point I didn’t actually accept them as any more factual than quicksand. To actually be confronted with the reality of leeches, even tiny grass-like leeches, was too much for my young mind. I scampered and leaped and thrashed at my body with a mindlessness that would ensure a visit to a mental ward and a very tight-fitting jacket in other situations.
I remember sitting numbly in the car for some time after that, my brother and I both somber from our recent experience. Our bodies had been picked clean, as best we could, but in my mind I could never be sure that I’d gotten them all. The rest of the day my mind tortured me with the thought that some of those small green worms had gotten inside me, burrowed under my skin, and were even then swimming up my veins, towards my heart, where they would feast on me from the inside until they finally grew large enough to burst out from within me, like a horrible human piñata.
Happily that never happened. After we returned from that trip, I still got the occasional visit from Sasquatch, or the Closet Monster, but they no longer could generate the same level of fright they once held. So perhaps I have leeches to thank for my grown up ability to handle the creeping horrors in a mature way.
Thanks, leeches. You blood-sucking demons.