Day of the Leeches
In February 1967, when I was nine years old, my parents took us from Buenos Aires to Córdoba Argentina for the summer holidays. We packed into our green Jeep Wagoneer and drove 700 miles from the city to the heart of the country, to the valleys and mountains of the provinces. We left at four in the morning, and for the first two hours of the trip I slept in the back seat with my two brothers. The route my father chose took us through the plains of the Pampas, monotonous and flat. We drove on a two-lane road that crossed through acres of fields planted with sunflowers, tall and colorful. Butterflies swarmed the way and created a canopy of color that engulfed the car. For miles and infinity, we saw nothing but sunflowers to the left and right, and butterflies in the front and back. Bored by the sameness of the road, I chose to lie down on the floor of the car, where all I could see out the window were the white clouds and blue skies above us. To my eyes, the clouds had the shapes and forms of animals, heroes, and magical beings. I imagined that each cloud told a story of pirates saving maidens, dragons eating horses, cats biting dogs, and boys playing in snow-white fields of cotton.
Halfway through our trip, we got a flat tire. Dad had run over a pothole that caused a puncture. At first, he lost a bit of control of the Jeep, but he stayed calm. There were no other cars on the road, and no one to assist us. As I was by nature a nervous child (still am), I was scared that we would be stuck forever, but my patient parents did not seem to mind and acted as if breaking down in the middle of the Pampas was nothing more than an everyday occurrence. “Come sit next to me,” said Mother, beckoning me to sit by the side of the car. Father took off his tie, which he always wore, rolled up the sleeves of his heavily starched shirt, and pulled the spare tire and the jack from the trunk. My twin brother, Gabriel, helped him.
“Does it go here, Dad?” he asked, trying to put the jack under the car. My father humored him by letting him pump the jack a few times. They didn’t ask me for any help, as I slumped in the back seat.
Mother took my baby brother, Tito, and sat by the field of sunflowers on the side of the road. She beckoned me again to come join her. "I have something for you," she said trying to lure me out of the car. "Bring me my purse." I took the handbag that she had left in the front seat and brought it to her quickly. There was always something magical inside that bag. It seemed to hold all the secrets and everything you needed for a happy life. She carried Band-Aids (which we called curitas, or cure-alls), handkerchiefs for runny noses, and cough drops for raspy throats. All these miracles lived at the bottom of that purse. Once again, the purse proved its worth. After digging around in the deepest-darkest pocket, Mother found un turrón de almendras (an almond nougat). I had never had one of these candy bars before, and it tasted like heaven. As the wind blew through the sunflowers and cleansed the sweat off my face, I sat next to my mother, enjoying the best candy bar of my life while listening to my father and brother.
“Pass me the wrench, son.” Dad to Gabriel.
“Will do Father!” Gabriel to Dad.
After a while, Gabriel and Father were done fixing the tire, and my brother claimed victory. “All done,” he said. “Dad and I fixed the Jeep!”
I was jealous that Dad had chosen Gabriel to help with the car and left me out of the manly fun. I didn’t tell Gabriel about the turrón de almendras, and how delicious it had been. Mother told me it was our secret. I hoped Gabriel would find out about it someday and that perhaps he would be as envious of me as I was of him.
When we arrived in Córdoba, the radiator grill on the front of the Jeep was covered with the carcasses of dead butterflies that had succumbed to the heat and stuck to the car. Mother called the dead butterflies "martyrs of the road trip." My brothers and I peeled-off their silky wings from the radiator grill to add them to our collection of odd things and found objects. The collection included brightly colored rubber bands, dead insects, and a rabbit's foot which was meant to bring us good luck.
Gabriel and I were the first to run inside the hotel. We screamed all the while, eager to start our vacation. The desk clerk, who was an albino, looked at us menacingly and wanted to know how long we would be staying. Her eyes were pale and unfocused, and her hair was like straw, whitish-yellow and brittle. We stared at the albino unabashedly, and she glared back at us. We examined her carefully with our eyes wide open and wondered what horror had beseeched her. When Mother and Father finished unpacking the Jeep, they joined us in the lobby with my baby brother in tow. Tito was four years old, chubby, and incorrigible. When he saw the albino, he screamed in a pitch that he normally reserved for the jabs they gave him at the doctor's office. As soon as the wailing started, Father covered Tito's mouth with his large hands and gave the clerk a big smile.
"Buenos días Señorita, tengo una reservación." The albino clerk huffed and gave him the keys to the two rooms.
Afterwards, Mother gave an account of the woman's condition. "They can't go in the sunlight," she explained. This sounded like a half-truth to our childish ears. We imagined the albino clerk was part human, part vampire, and she was forced to work in a dark hotel lobby to protect herself from the sunlight that kills the undead. When no one was looking, we took one of the clerk's business cards from the front desk and added it to our collection of oddities.
Mom and Dad’s hotel room comprised two twin beds, a desk, and a small bathroom. The boys' bedroom comprised a child's bed for Tito and a bunk bed for Gabriel and me. Our bathroom was down the hall, to be shared with the other guests, which I declared I would not use.
Father gave us marching orders to go play in the hotel's playground, while he and Mother took a nap. The playground was on a sloping green hill overlooking a valley. We rolled on the grass a bit, but mostly we played on the seesaw for hours. When Gabriel was up sky-high on the seesaw, I held down the other side close to the ground so that he would feel as if he were flying. He in turn would hold down his side when I was up high, and I would scream, “Don’t let me fall, Gabriel!”
Father let us play late into the night, hoping we would tire ourselves and sleep. But that night we could not rest. In our bunk bed, we talked endlessly about the exploits we would have the next day, not unlike the adventures I had seen in the clouds.
The next morning, Mother packed a picnic and ordered us to slip into our bathing suits so that Father could drive us to a nearby river. He parked the Jeep under a bridge near a tributary of the Dulce River. The waters were brown and rapid. Perhaps not strong enough to carry adults, but fast enough for Tito, Gabriel, and me. Our small bodies felt like clouds, tossed carelessly and freely into the undulating waves. We laughed, even though the currents occasionally sucked us in and covered our heads. We had no fear. I told Gabriel to hold on to Tito, and all three of us rolled in the creek's water like the tail of a comet. Father walked along the creek overseeing us. He looked anxious for our safety, but he was eager to exhaust us so that we would sleep that night.
After taking our fill of the fun, and having swallowed too much water, we slipped out of the creek, spitting and shivering. Our bathing suits were heavy with river mud, so we quickly took them off. As I pulled down my trunks Gabriel pointed at my backside and shrieked in fright. "What happened to you?" he asked pointing to my very white bum. Tito started screaming as well when he found little slimy lumps on his plump belly. All three of us were covered with leeches, front and back. We shrieked, and our laughter turned to tears, then laughter again, then fright.
Mother hushed us (“quiet, quiet, hush-hush now”) and drew us to the picnic blanket she had set in the field. Without saying a word, she reached for the saltshaker and carefully peeled the leeches one by one by pouring salt on their backs. As they were pulled off our skin, each leech left a small reddish mark behind, the imprint of its bite. When the de-leeching and de-lousing were done, Mother covered our wounds with band-aids from her purse, and Father patted us on the back. All healed up, wrapped in towels, and shivering in our nakedness, we snacked in delight on the picnic food that Mother had prepared. Hard-boiled eggs with salt and very warm tea served out of a thermos.
Fifty-five years later, the aroma of the picnic tea is what I most remember from the day of the leeches.
May 7, 2022
© Ernesto Beckford 2022
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