Sometimes the divide between horror and comedy is not so wide that you have to back up several feet and get a running start to jump across, and even then, feel your heel scrape against the emptiness of the chasm below as you land safely on the other side. When they want to, horror and comedy can easily stretch across whatever boundary separates them and shake hands as a twisting line of blood on your niece’s thigh gathers strength to worm its way farther down her leg.

Leeches, blood-sucking parasites that live in muddy, stagnant waters, have twice attached themselves to my personal history. The first occurrence happened when my cousin Pearl and I took her toddlers swimming in a lake in Maine. We had rented a lake house and I was sitting on the porch talking with my dad when Pearl ran up from the beach area carrying her daughter Claire, very much alive and well, in her arms. Pearl’s other two children stumbled behind her, trying to keep up. As she approached us, I could see Pearl’s eyes were wild and rolling with fear. 

“What’s wrong?” I asked as she raced by my dad and me to the back of the house. “Claire has a leech on her leg!” she hollered.

I didn’t know it then, but Pearl had never removed a leech from human flesh before. To be honest, I hadn’t either, but I did know the trick that you could kill a leech by pouring salt on it. 

As my terrified cousin and her leech-infected and non-leech-infected children disappeared behind the house, my dad got up from his chair to follow them and I went inside the house to find some salt. Maybe it took me a minute to find the saltshaker, but before I could get outside again, I heard a car’s engine roar to life. Following the noise, saltshaker in hand, I came across a scene that illustrates why you never want to mess with a mama bear and her children.

Before me on the lawn stood my dad and the kids. Before me, behind the wheel of her car, Pearl drove a few feet forward, shift, a few feet backward, shift, a few feet forward, shift, a few feet backward.

“Where’s the leech?” I asked my dad.

“She’s driving over it,” he grimly replied.

Instead of waiting for the salt, Mama Bear had ripped the leech off Claire’s leg and executed it in a manner that now made leeches everywhere consider her a war criminal. After a couple more back-and-forths, the car’s engine turned off. I walked over to the flattened leech and the area where its blood and whatever blood it had been able to collect from Claire mixed with the dust of the driveway.

“I think it’s dead,” I said to Mama Bear, who was now calmly walking over to inspect the mortal remains. I looked at my watch. “Time of death, 2:03 p.m.,” I announced.

In silence we looked at the parasite whose days of blood-sucking and writhing were at an end.

“I’m going to get some chalk and draw a circle around the leech and stake out the area with yellow tape so that when the police arrive they can more easily reconstruct what happened,” I said.

Now that the danger had been eliminated, Mama Bear quickly transformed back to Pearl. She looked down at my hand.

“Why are you holding a saltshaker?”

Next month: Leech Wars, Episode 2: The return of the leech and this time he’s brought his friends along!

Gregory Greenleaf lives in Harpswell and teaches high school English. He ascribes, prescribes and subscribes to many old-fashioned ideas, but especially Charles Dickens’ observation that “There is nothing in the world so irresistibly contagious as laughter and good humor.”