On such a grey February day, many of us tune in to daydreams of azure water, white beaches, and warmth. Others long for the snow to melt and cottage season to begin. I haven’t written much about azure waters, but I did write a story that was published last spring in a collection of short stories called From the Cottage Porch .
In keeping with the keen yearning for warmer weather, I thought I’d share that story, one of my few cottage experiences. In honour of everyone who’s made memories at a special place “up north”, this one’s for you.
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Everything I Know About Leeches, I Learned at the Cottage
When I was a kid we lived on a farm and we thought we had it made in the shade, and in the sun, or the dappled light beneath the ash tree that grew at the head of our long lane. Back then the only cottages I’d ever seen were colourful drawings in storybooks and they all belonged to interesting people like Red Riding Hood’s granny or the Three Bears. We lived in a plain old farmhouse, so boring compared to cottages, especially the candy-covered one from the story of Hansel and Gretel.
I do have a faint recollection of hearing that some city folk went to their cottages every weekend. When my parents explained about that kind of cottage, I couldn’t believe they’d travel such a long way to enjoy what we had every day. Our home was surrounded by fields and vegetable gardens, and the lawns had space for clotheslines, swings, and games of croquet. In the spring a stream flowed through the lower field and we paddled and played in the mud to our hearts’ content. We had a herd of cows, a bunch of barn cats, and a dog called Fritz, but one thing we didn’t have on our farm was leeches.
The summer I was twelve, my horizons expanded. My aunt and uncle, also country dwellers, borrowed a friend’s cottage. Although we were baffled at the need to go elsewhere to enjoy the great outdoors, my mother accepted her sister’s invitation to bring us kids and join them for a few days. The fathers stayed just long enough to drop us off and see that everything was in order, and then they returned to large empty houses and their jobs. The cottage was small, and with nine children between them, my mother and aunt must have felt like they’d landed in the Old Woman’s shoe, but we kids didn’t notice.
For the entire first day we played outdoors in the river. It wasn’t deep and its clear water was the colour of amber, the colour of cedar trees that clung to the rocky shore, their exposed roots curled around smooth lozenges of rock jutting into the water. While my cousin Sandra and I explored the deeper water in the middle of the river, the younger ones played in shallow pools near the cottage.
After an exhausting day of fun the nine of us, dressed in our pyjamas, crowded around the flickering screen of the small television in the living room. Partway through our show I saw my younger cousin Dave pull his foot up into his lap and, with the agility of childhood, turn the bottom of it upward. He seemed absorbed with something stuck in the crease between the base of his toes and the sole of his foot.
“Mom,” he said, frowning, “I’ve got a raisin stuck on my foot and I can’t get it off.”
My aunt was sitting beside him so she leaned over for a look.
A moment later she grabbed his foot and held it out for all of us to see. Poor Dave was favoured with her unique expression of condescension, one eyebrow arched high, the other lowered, and her mouth puckered tight. “That’s not a raisin,” she informed him. “That’s a little blood-sucker.”
She spoke that horrible word in a loud voice, pronouncing it with two distinct syllables so there’d be no mistaking what she’d said. Beneath his tan we could see Dave’s face blanch and his blue eyes widen. The rest of us tiptoed over and formed a horrified circle around him, craning our necks to see, afraid that if we got too close the thing might attack. Dave whimpered.
“Get me the salt shaker,” my aunt commanded and my mother reached for one sitting on the cross-member between the two-by-fours of the unfinished wall near the table.
By now we were transfixed, unable to move our eyes from the small black thing at the base of Dave’s middle toe.
“Here,” my aunt said, twisting Dave’s foot around so she could get a good aim at her target. “A little salt will take care of the blood-sucker.” She did the eyebrow thing at the rest of us and then began shaking the salt. As soon as it touched the creature, it writhed and dropped to the floor.
“Ew, ew, ewww …” we screamed and leapt onto chairs, safe islands high enough to protect us from the savage bloodsucker below.
“What is that thing, really?” someone had the nerve to ask.
“It’s really a blood-sucker,” my aunt said, shaking her head at our naivety. They live in the river.”
We screamed again.
She rolled her eyes, then wrinkled her forehead and gave us a scornful look. Her lips were a tight line and the corners of her mouth turned down a little farther than usual. “They won’t hurt you,” she told us. “They just attach themselves to you, that’s all.”
Little Elaine looked at her mother, her brown eyes wide. “Why do they th-tick to you?” she lisped. “Do they like you?”
My mother tried to explain. “That’s how they eat,” she told us.
“Eat?” Dave’s eyes were big and the bit of colour returning to his cheeks disappeared. He looked at the red spot by his toe. “What do they eat?”
“Some people call them leeches, Dave,” she told him and I could tell she was trying to reassure us all. “They suck your blood for a bit and when they’ve had enough they just drop off and leave you alone.” Her explanation was accurate but her audience wasn’t comforted.
“Well, I’m not going in the water tomorrow,” my sister stated from her armchair sanctuary, arms around knees that she’d drawn up to her chest.
“Ew, me neither.”
“Neither am I.”
A chorus of affirmation ran round the room and we shivered at the very thought.
My aunt heaved a sigh and rolled her eyes again. “For heaven’s sake,” she scoffed. “What’s the matter with you kids? You were out there all day today and you were perfectly fine. Just stay out of the shallow muddy places and forget about it.” Her eagle eyes looked around our cringing circle and we felt pinned to our chairs. “You’re all going back into the water tomorrow right after breakfast.”
I could tell my mother felt a little sorry for us but when her sister spoke, it was law.
That night, bundled into bunk beds lining the walls of the tiny bedrooms, we snickered and snorted as we laughed about Dave’s misfortune. But later, after it got quiet, every crease in my sleeping bag felt like a slimy bloodsucker. In the morning I checked beneath my bed before making a dash for the kitchen, sure that a sneaky leech was right behind me, ready to pounce.
After breakfast, true to her word, my aunt glared until we walked to the river with reluctant steps, each trying to let the others go first. She followed, herding the stragglers and holding the salt shaker.
“In you go,” she commanded when we reached the water’s edge.
Remembering what we’d heard the night before, Sandra and I splashed through the shallow areas and into the waist-deep pool between smooth mounds of rock in the river. Because no one had yet sounded the alarm about phosphates, we’d brought shampoo with us and we washed our long hair, sitting on the river bottom to wet and rinse it. Every small movement of the current against my body and each strand of hair that brushed my cheek felt like a monster leech about to attach itself and suck away my lifeblood, but we survived.
Except for a trip or two down the road to a small store, I must have lived in the deeper water in the middle of the river for the duration of our visit because I have no recollection of anything else. While Sandra and I swam in the pools or sunbathed on the large rocks we heard an occasional shriek from the shore. Watching from our safe place we could see the unfortunate victim scramble from the water and grab the salt shaker.
A bloodsucker never got me at that cottage and I doubt one ever will, because now I tend to enjoy the great outdoors far from water. I will admit that one of my worst nightmares is being a hospital patient and finding out that I will need medical leech therapy. If that ever happens I think I’d ask my aunt to come and stand by with a salt shaker.