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When I was 7, I witnessed my first death. We were at the cottage when my cousin Sebastian found, trapped and tortured a leech on the dock. My mother took this opportunity as teachable moment; not about how some young boys can be cruel and violent or how others will try and beat the ugly out of this world but of how these parasitic, predatory worms are super resistant, strong, “can even resist torture,” she said. When the boys left, I built a home for the suffering leech, of sticks and mud and a red leaf for the roof. Shortly after, the leech died. Sebastian returned to steal the dead from its home, to use as bait to catch fish, he said. I strongly resisted but failed. Sebastian wouldn’t listen to reason. Sebastian was a killer I guess. I remember crying so much that afternoon, throwing a tantrum so severe that Sebastian enlisted my grandfather into finding a replacement leech. They went off into the lake. Just after dinner, when the sun was setting, my cousin and grandfather returned with two long, beautiful, speckled leeches.
I had permission to bring them home as long as they were returned the following weekend. During that time, I cared for them, brought them to show and tell at school. A new addition to my friend group, to our tea parties and adventures. I kept them in a bucket of sand and weeds. Aunt Margaret closed the cottage as the summer came to an end and we never got the chance to return the leeches to the lake. I wondered if they were mad at me for taking them from their home. A profound guilt came over me. I was to protect them from an uncertain future, I told myself, from the cruel boys and the fish that wanted them dead. I kept them for two months.
Leeches can go a long time without eating but by the end October, I started noticing how they weren’t as active, as responsive. I thought about placing my little hand in the leech bucket and letting them suck at it for a while but I couldn’t stomach it. I was getting concerned. Winter was quickly approaching and my babies were starving to death. I tried feeding them meat, raw meat, even the blood from raw meat. Nothing.
My mother got worried that they would die. That the trauma from their death would cause irreparable damage; foreshadowing a future of bad relationships and loose morals. “Trauma can do that,” she told my dad quietly. My mother called the Museum of Nature for some advice. She spoke to a woman that specialized in creepy crawlers, in leeches. “Leeches only feed on live mammals,” she said. In their exhibit, they fed them mice. I don’t think I could stomach that either. The museum people told us that we would have to put them in the fridge over the winter so that they could hibernate. Mom didn’t want that. However, the museum had an upcoming workshop on creepy crawlers. They told us to bring our little friends and that they would keep them in their exhibit if they were a fit, or else, release them. I was happy. My leeches had found a home, of glass and fame.
Workshop day had arrived, and one of my leeches escaped. I was destroyed again. I yelled at everyone to watch where they were stepping or so help me god. Mom said they could sense water. When she came home, she looked under the rug in the corner of the house facing the biggest body of water, the river. My leech was there, alone and shriveled up, but still alive. We quickly rushed them to the museum. There we met with the leech specialist and compared leeches. Mine were much more beautiful, they were mine. Theirs were small and grey. Mine were big, dark green, with a dotted vermillion line along their backs. “They slid like pretty ribbons through water,” I told them. The museum agreed to take them. They went even further and gifted me free admissions passes, inviting my entire class to come see them in their new home. A few months later we took a school field trip to the Museum of Nature for the creepy crawler exhibit. My leeches were easy to spot amongst the others. They were the prettiest.