Columns » Penny Post by Andrei Codrescu

Leeches and the Mississippi



I'm traveling the upper reaches of the Mississippi River, making my way down back home to New Orleans, then past it to the Gulf of Mexico. After a ceremony conducted by an Ojibwe shaman at the Headwaters at Lake Itasca, our crew stopped at a bar. It's called "Buck Stops Here." It did. We ordered beers from a fellow named Olaf and sat down under some giant deer heads. Two guys at the end of the bar questioned us as to our business, and when we told them, the elder of the two, Ole, aka Clarence J. Fairbanks, a Chippewa, told us with a great deal of pride that he was the guy who invented leech trapping. I never heard of leech trapping before, so we asked him what it was, and he obliged. He trapped tons of leeches in the many lakes around Itasca, using kidneys -- animal, I suppose -- and sold them to fishing stores for bait and to medical researchers for their healing properties. Walleye and perch love leeches, but these bait-leeches are not the same as the medical leeches, which are flatter and are named "jelly-bellies." The jelly-bellies stick to your skin and start slowly pulling up blood and feed until they are full, at which time they inject you with an antibiotic type substance that prevents infection, close the wound and fall off gently sated and blissful. We had a few more beers and there was more leech lore forthcoming. In Vietnam, he told us, he hadn't been too particularly fond of leeches: you could see their eyes in the dark in the jungle and you'd find yourself girded around the waist and maybe from head to foot in leeches when you finally moved. That called for whiskey and another round.

Later we stopped at a bait shop/gas station and the proprietor scooped up a soupspoon full of black, fat leeches from a glass tank and poured them into my hands where they wiggled for a while and didn't take long to start adhering to my skin and get real intimate. I must confess here that there was something hypnotic about the whole thing and that, if I didn't have as little sense as I do, I might be tempted to lie in a vat of leeches and let them do their thing. I wouldn't do this alone, but I don't know many girls who'd like to do this with me. Well, maybe one.

It was an auspicious start: the Mississippi's headwaters are pure, they sparkle with innocence, and then the leeching begins: mills, agribusiness, shipping, nuclear plants and toxins of every variety. The river: she's scarred, but I hope still alive.

Andrei Codrescu's latest book is New Orleans Mon Amour: Twenty Years of Writing From the City (Algonquin Books).

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