In seventh and eighth grade I went to a school that was close enough to home that, while my parents or friends’ parents dropped us off in the mornings on their way to work, we could walk home. We cut through peoples’ backyards, which seems odd to me now. If I saw a handful of teenagers walking through my yard I’d ask them to leave. Or I’d think really hard about asking them to leave because teenagers make me nervous, but that’s another story.
At least we didn’t linger in anyone’s yard, and I think if anyone who lived in those places notice us they took it as part of living across the street from a school. And the advantage for us was that instead of taking a ridiculously long way around we could cut at least half an hour off the trip. And only part of it was yards. After that there were woods, and a creek.
There’s a Far Side cartoon of a bunch of medieval warriors storming a castle, but one of them is pointing at the moat and saying, “Look! Goldfish!” I’m not reproducing it here because Gary Larson has asked that people not share his cartoons online, and even if you haven’t seen it I think you get the idea. Anyway I would have been that guy. I still find creeks–any body of water, really–interesting. As a kid I could spend hours examining the flora and fauna–mostly fauna–of creeks and bring home jars of salamanders, tadpoles, crawfish, minnows, and anything else I could find. One summer I found a freshwater mussel and kept it in an aquarium for months.
One day crossing the creek I noticed small brown worms in a still spot. My friends insisted we go on–Danger Mouse was going to be on in a few minutes–but later I came back with a jar.
I know what these are, I thought. I’ve read about these. These are flatworms–planaria in the scientific parlance, those diamond-headed cross-eyed worms that could be sliced down the middle and would grow two new worms. Or you could cut them halfway and they’d grow two heads.
I’d only seen flatworms in pictures but I was still surprised by how tiny they were: half a centimeter, maybe, although they were in constant motion so it was almost impossible to get a good measurement. And their heads didn’t look right either. I tried slicing a couple with a scalpel from a dissecting kit but they slipped away from the knife or ended up in pieces that quickly died. As cool as it would have been to have a collection of tiny two-headed beasts it seemed cruel so I quit.
Finally I trapped one in a little container and got a good look at it. These weren’t flatworms. They weren’t worms at all.
They were leeches.
I returned them to the creek. After that my friends never had a problem with me stopping to look in the creek. I was happy to get home quickly. I didn’t want to miss Danger Mouse.