‘The Leech Barometer,’
Granta, Online Issue 142, ‘Animalia’ April 2018.
Edited by Eleanor Chandler
Out of Body Experience
I hear little clicks when I hike through the Dandenong Ranges. It could be the leeches, sticking and unsticking. Leeches doing as I was warned they would, dropping through the canopy. Or: the sound might be in my head alone. The clicking is like the cap on a childproof bottle being twisted and twisted. It is like the click of a rollercoaster, starting off.
The mood is medieval, which is the historical style of all rainforest gullies regardless of their specific geography. Tree-stumps as headstones, their fallen progenitors gone dankly to rafts of grit underground. Anaerobic spools of hyphae burst out as fungi, gapes of baby-teeth. Sometimes an earthstar, if kicked, releases a column of spores that walks on ahead – a child-ghost paddled by ferns. The smell is haemal. Wet iron. Grunge and ferment in ruts. A scrape, a skid; the ditherings of nocturnal theatre on the path. Crunched bones in scat, there, the mud rucked and feathered. Dead dust in the air. And leeches. Leeches teeming, flocking, unseen. Intuit them everywhere, in the trees and also the streams, the brushwood, the bracken. Leeches moving in unison. Like a monster hacked and partitioned. Drawing itself back together commanded by my mammalian warmth and scent, crawling through the shade and quickening its danse macabre. I think I hear the clicks. No, it is not my jaw popping. I pull my socks up against the leeches.
Two leeches, when they mate, press together like the lips of one mouth. A kissless kiss in leaf litter, or a squeezing moue of dissatisfaction. Either way, something expressive in it. How like an aperture, an opening – if parted, to what (and how far, how dark)? Lips, olive-black, on the forest floor. Each leech has a pair of hearts. Two leeches conjoin their sensitive anterior suckers and clamp, lateral. Their pout pulses, contracts and crimps, it softens, melts, drips. The mucus-covered skin of a leech seems to want to dissolve any surface it encounters, so when leech aligns with leech the border between the pair, imagine it, turns tender, then liquid, and then – doesn’t it? – disappear. What part of a leech bites; is it the part that couples?
After seeing leeches splayed in little doublets and crucifixes on the moss, elsewhere write down two kisses to close your correspondence: XX. Sex chromosome, but not one of leeches. How far does the hand get before the thought occurs what was I crossing out here?
Leeches are hermaphrodites. But not all at once. They begin life with two sets of nascent genitalia, then their sex organs mature sequentially. First male, they transition to being female. That moment of switching: the female consumes the inward male. Or perhaps this process is less like overpowering, less like predation – a gentle subsidence, a giving way.
Why was the first impulse, an unconscious impulse, to subtraction – to figure those written kisses the work of striking out? X too, designates multiplication. X brings to mind the XX-ing of stitches, of suturing together, the mending of what has been painfully opened. I feel like something about this has to do with leeches writhing in the Dandenongs. The fine line between healing and harming, perhaps, and its transgression. (XXX on a bottle: medicine, liquor or poison?) Watching the leeches, what was confusing – and, in turns, wondrous – was whether they were sucking each other up, cohering, turning inside out, or reproducing. Making more leeches or less? I had wanted so much to touch them, to intercede in their pinching. But I didn’t, knowing it dangerous. Leeches get on you and they can shoot up a nostril or slip beneath an eyelid. Then it’s real damage.
Freud had a patient once, a woman of thirty, he writes ‘most attractive and handsome’. This woman came to see the famous psychoanalyst after she heard a clicking or ticking she could not explain. The story she told went like this: she had a man, a new lover, and having gone with him to his ‘bachelor room’ in the daytime, having amorously undressed there on the sofa, she was alarmed to hear the click of a camera coming from the direction of his writing desk.
She later came to believe the man had concealed a conspirator (or conspirators) behind the curtain beyond the desk, persons he had arranged to take photographs of her naked in his private quarters. The woman heard the ticking, the shutter, and transformed her lover into a persecutor. She fled (without pulling back the curtain) and set her mind to sending him long, reproachful letters. The man refuted the accusation – there was no such voyeur! But the idea took hold of her until she felt it was always upon her: an obsession. Who was the obscene photographer in league with her lover? Was that person doubly her admirer, or was he ashamed? Ashamed for her, she worried. Did she appear vulgar in the shot? Parted, on display? Did her lover mean to share her with another, or others; or did he want to arrest her image for his own possessive enjoyment, to keep her his, in his drawer or interleaved in a folio. (Perhaps together with photos of other women.)
In Freud’s account the woman doesn’t put a word to the fear of having been, or having been the subject of, the lecherous. As in lecherous (adj.): showing offensive sexual desire. As of a lecher, a man given to lewdness, debauchery, and, how Webster’s puts it: a glutton, a libertine, a parasite. The feminine form is lechiere or lickestre, literally ‘lickster’ (nativized as ‘lickerish’) – ‘female who licks’. Lascivious. Only the masculine lecher persists with its negative connotation in English. Disquieting lust, desire misplaced and excessive. The lecher is a male looker in the modern sense, the upskirter, a perve, but also a consumer, a copper of feels, a licker of aura, a sucker, a leech.
Freud’s diagnosis transfigures the photographer behind the bedroom curtain into an hallucination: not, in fact, a photographer or a man, but a woman watcher, a surrogate for his patient’s mother. The gender-morphing individual imagined there, the doctor claims, was no more than an externalisation of the woman’s suppressed lesbianism.
This much we can soon do away with (and exasperatedly). But what of the sound, the click? A sensationnot a sound, reports Freud, an internal noise. He elaborates. The patient experienced her physical responses as audible. Why? She had feelings she could not lay claim to, bodily; sensations of arousal, being triangulated by her envisioned voyeur and her male lover. The click she heard was ‘the sensation of a knock or beat in her clitoris’, writes Freud. The click came from inside her. The camera was inside her. The camera was her clitoris.
What Freud hit upon was this: there is nothing more introspective than exhibitionism.
But I have often wondered about the significance of the writing desk in this symptomology. That the sound emanated from the direction of the desk seems not an inconsequential detail. The desk, that hard, cool surface on which the woman’s lover wrote love letters to her, signing and sealing those letters XX – say he must have, either side of the quarrel; if his goal was to entice or appease her. (One X for the self that composes a letter, the other X for the self that wants what it wants on a sofa – the distance between the difference might be short, or long).
Only, perhaps he initialled each letter with only one X in lieu of his real name. The kind of X that is both an erasure (X is anyone’s anonymous mark on correspondence intercepted) and simultaneously, a glyph of intense intimacy. Whose desires unfurled from the tight axis of that single X? The woman was expected to know, her suitor imagining himself singular, the only X in her letterbox.
Write an X with a pen on paper and the dash–dash of it can also feel, and sound, like a clicking. Try it now yourself. Then stand on the other side of the room for a minute, and listen.
The same psychological anguish of the photographer behind the curtain, that kind of knowing and not-knowing, is the weapon of leeches. I have been bitten by two leeches, two leeches that I saw. One as a teen, one last year. Many more I have imagined, phantom leeches that have me scanning my skin with a compact mirror on return from the forest. The first leech sucked in my armpit after a swim in an ungazetted creek in Walpole, Western Australia. Cold water, the colour of Coca-Cola. If you can stand it – and I do mean, existentially – nothing about a leech bite hurts. You are not supposed to pluck a leech off your skin midway through its meal, or salt or burn it with a cigarette, because that might prompt the leech to regurgitate the noxious fluid from its stomach which causes an infection. It’s better to wait it out. The leech in Walpole grew fat and tight as a fig, then fell off. It slid into the understory. I pondered longingly the leech. Gone, with my blood inside it, plugging me into the riverbank. I told no one about it, fearing disgust. Where does a body start and end? I asked myself this question often as a teen, sometimes the answers were about pleasure, and sometimes they were about paranoia.
The second leech is private.
Well, okay. The second leech was tiny. It prowled off the shaggy trunk of a tree fern I was leant back against, and fastened itself on the side of my bare hip. I struck it off with a knuckle before the word ‘leech’ had even risen to my tongue, I think before I knew that it was a leech (something evolutionary in the horror of recognizing it). Then I asked the man I was with to stop, and I saw how the lipstick I had slicked on had earlier left a red insignia, like two burning leeches laid side by side, on his chest. The light was gasping. I wanted him to check me all over for other leeches; the leeches I couldn’t feel, but which I was then convinced were everywhere on us like the eyes of the hikers I had, moments before, erotically conjured – or who were really there – watching us from the distant path above, cameras swinging from their necks and lusty heat on their breath.
Now I do and do not hear little clicks. Perhaps it is grasshoppers, or ripe seedpods snapping. Perhaps it is the felt anticipation of the letter I mean to write and am mentally composing. Or perhaps it is that species of bird that breaks snail-shells by tapping them, once, twice, on a stone. A leech alone makes no noise, for it is only one parenthesis and half a mouth, hanging always open, hungry for more.
Early in Lauren Groff’s novel Fates and Furies, the protagonist Mathilde tells the man she has newly married about her childhood in the Pennsylvanian countryside, so isolated and bleak, so lonely, she let a leech live on her inner thigh for a week just to have an ally and a secret.
Years later her husband, a playwright, recounts the story as though it were his own experience – the leech placed snuggly on his thigh, in his youth, in Florida. This re-latching of the leech occurs during a radio interview. The playwright offers the anecdote as a founding myth of his creative life. How friendless those days were, unsupervised in the miasmic swamp – his affection so lost for a proper target it adhered even to the repellant, oozing leech. The interviewer is shocked. Then soft-hearted.
After the broadcast Mathilde confronts her husband. She accuses him of stealing the episode to dramatize his boyhood. ‘My loneliness,’ she says, stonily, ‘not yours’. But the playwright insists on the memory, how emphatically it registers in his body. (‘He could feel the hot mud on his legs, the horror dissolving to a kind of tenderness when he found the small black leech’). Mathilde grows outraged, as I certainly would too. How could her husband let what happened to her, become something that happened to him? For how long has he been secreting the leech into his own personal history? ‘It’s not that you stole my story,’ she rails: ‘you stole my friend.’
Can a leech be a friend? Is it worse to steal a story or a friend?
Nestled companion, the girl-Mathilde welcomed the leech because its presence drained her loneliness in addition to her blood. But, being unlike anything we call ‘pet’, being unfriendly, faceless and parasitic, the leech only serves to amplify her solitude. In Pennsylvania no one cares for the young Mathilde enough to check her over for leeches. ‘Leech’ is both the animate shape of her emotional abandonment (a way to place that pain outside her, to see the agency of her sadness) and, at the same time, the leech is a fruiting reminder of her ongoing neglect.
Its placement on her body says more still. In the crease of Mathilde’s inner thigh, the leech’s suction – ‘so close to what mattered,’ it ‘thrilled her’ – both defends Mathilde from being touched, and underscores how untouched she is, how much she desires.
Freudian, the yonic brushstroke of the leech in Fates and Furies, swelling gently with blood. A kind of autoeroticism deferred through an animal. The nourishing wound. To be fed on by leeches is to be terribly alone and intimately accompanied.
Groff depicts the thievery of Mathilde’s story by her playwright husband as brutish and blundering. Doubly so for his withering defence when it dawns on him that his wife has remembered it rightly, the leech belongs in Mathilde’s tale of origin. ‘To be fair, it was a leech,’ the playwright says, dismissively. ‘A story about a leech’. So two times, he leaches off Mathilde’s tale! Her playwright husband draws the emotion out of the leech to furnish his own public myth of provenance (he takes its loneliness, Mathilde’s loneliness, and uses it). Then, in suggesting the leech had no real symbolic charge – that her leech story is a trifling one – he uses the leech again to remind Mathilde she is alone even within marriage, having failed to transmit the true significance of the leech to him such that he would not think to touch it, to appropriate it as his own.
The playwright’s mnemonic vampirism ends in blood on the sheets. In the closing minutes of the radio interview he claims to have rolled onto his leech in sleep, and exploded it (premonition of menstruation or a vile wedding night). ‘There was so much blood that he felt guilty as if he’d murdered a person’. And he has, hasn’t he? Murdered his wife’s girlhood by absorbing her memories, her wounds, into his body, and metastasizing them there as his own?
Groff knows, as we do too, leeches are primordial, saturnine, druidic, powerful and chaotic creatures. A leech can fill with feeling, tapping the vein of a host. Leeches are hexes, wishes, incantations. As per Proverbs 30.15: ‘The leech has two daughters. “Give! Give!” they cry.’ Give, give. The leech is acquisitive. The leech is fecund.
But there remains space in me still, for a narrow kind of empathy with the character of the playwright. Something about talking of leeches makes you sense leeches on you. Twitchy. I feel for you, people will say in pity sometimes, but how is it meant? How does a feeling migrate between us, and where does it lodge? A leech story moves not just in the mind, but in the body. This is its magic. Write about leeches, tell stories of leeches, and you might begin to feel the touch-point of a leech on your own skin, a trail of wetness, a prickling, an itch. There: behind your ear, on the underside of your knee. Listen to leech confessions or read them and the residue that lingers is more sensation than information. A shudder. One real leech begets many more imaginary ones.