The Red Leech

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I wrote this at the beginning of junior year of high school. It’s quite fascinating to read over now, because I find it to be written by someone horribly inexperienced. My favorite sentence is still “Our bus might well have been a tour bus, mindfully stopping only at the desolate patches of the hour.” The phrase “ceaseless interruptions” is also clever, but not very profound.

The essay

During the first week of school, we were told that our bus had too many people, and the driver urged our stop to board another bus. She announced that the new stop is nearby, at the old junior high school. She was quick to add that the new bus would arrive fifteen minutes earlier. So in the first week, we became part of a startlingly familiar group: that of refugees.

The next morning I walked the still streets of darkness. There is a narrow pathway leading to the junior high; tree roots had made gradual cracks in the cement, but the effects were dubious. I sneaked carefully so as not to trip, and wondered earnestly whether someone would be waiting at the end of the path.

The junior high, which I had not visited in over a year, had not changed: plants lined carefully surrounding the building; industrial-strength windows covered the spaces between the brick walls; the cement pavement straightened to perfection. In the front courtyard a janitor was standing with a garbage bin, and was in the deathly morning talking alone. I could not spot a headset. Who becomes a janitor by their own discretion anyway? The night air prompted me to move on, though I knew once I arrived at the stop I would only be standing. I marched on, knowing the futility of my pursuits.

I had made sure to arrive early, and after waiting a few minutes I realized I happened not to be waiting at the stop, for I saw someone off in the distance, presumably waiting for the bus. The bus did arrive, eventually; the warm air it carried was at once welcomed by all who were waiting in the cold. The driver, who might in her younger days have been pretty, sat bound by the seatbelt, and forced a smile. I could not truly see her face, for accumulated over the years was a thick layer of makeup. Our stop was the first of the morning, I found out, so that the bus was empty. The bus made a short loop around the parking lot, to cut distance, which I thought clever, since the entire lot was quite large;—and yet, the novelty would last only the first morning. As the bus rolled up the main street, through the window I saw the metro bus in the distance parked to let an endless line of riders in. What madness; all boarding the same bus!

As our bus continued to fulfill its obligation, a curious memory surfaced. Back in Japan, some of us used to go to a special facility after school, since our parents worked. There we played games, read comics, played in the sandbox outside—there even was a designated snack time.

Perhaps when I was in the second grade or so, the small group of kids at this facility, of which I was a part, had a definite leader, and he would often test his authority by giving orders: to make us work for him, follow him, copy him. We were his subjects, and our duty was to stay loyal. There was a system of points in place; the higher the points one had, the more one was favored by the leader. Points were earned when one correctly obeyed a command. If we all followed the same order, higher points were given to those who were more careful, more precise. Since all that mattered were the points, it was of no matter that we lacked freedom.

One day one of us—a good friend of mine—disobeyed the master and went off to play with another group. The leader said, to me and another boy in our group, “That boy—the one who just left—his points total is now zero.” I looked at the other boy, who looked at me, and in one of those rare telepathic moments I knew we had the same thought in our minds. There seemed to be two forces, in opposite directions, and thinking back, I admit to not liking either of them. One was the relief and sense of superiority—like winning some competition of survival. The boy who had left us was to become a savage, starving from his lack of competence with the wilderness. Then, quickly, there came the fear from the realization that equally promptly the leader could dismiss me off to exile.

Soon the leader had us follow him closely behind to check on the other boy. The boy was playing dodge ball with another group. The leader became engaged in this new activity, and announced: “This boy, he now has one hundred points.” The dissenter hardly took notice, but I was astonished and indignant at this pronouncement.

My mind returned to the bus as it drove up a hill, and in the distance I saw a mountain, and behind it the rising sun. And for a moment I did not recognize where we were heading—like when I see roadkill and wonder to where it goes, or when I stop doing something because suddenly I cannot remember what it is I was supposed to do, or when I have a clear image of a place but cannot ascertain by which path I had traveled there. Though why should I recognize this place? It was a new bus with a new route. Suddenly the world was a big mystery, and that thought made me dizzy and cold and I froze in place. The winding mountainous road took us to an opening where I could spot houses below, seemingly climbing the slope of the mountain. The houses were in a continuous battle with nature, or it might well have been the other way around; none of it bothered me too much.

I then drifted two months back when I was again in Japan, visiting for the first time in two years. It was not like my childhood days, when everything was a cheerful adventure. On trains one could spot those who had worked overtime or those with an immediate deadline—everything was told in their eyes. Near the station one would be amazed to find people crowding in front of pinball gambling stores because something in their minds told them they had to return each morning. In the city at night one would be stopped by men and women trying to lure customers into the bars which employed them. Or the train in midday suddenly stopping because of an ‘accident’. But, honestly, I knew all this before I arrived; I simply wasn’t bothered by it before. I had grown more sensitive in these years; or perhaps it was the rapid influx of knowledge, like discovering that the Japanese national anthem is a glorification of the emperor obscured by archaic language.

The bus stopped to allow on a single boy. He crawled deliberately like a pet rat might after its cage was cleaned—noticing something had changed. Is something the matter? We then coasted down the side of the hill, where more kids came on. At one stop a boy got on and sat next to me. From a quick glace I thought I recognized him so I looked at him again; he in turn looked at me too, and, both of us concluding we didn’t know each other, we both looked the other way. Our bus might well have been a tour bus, mindfully stopping only at the desolate patches of the hour.

We entered the high school parking lot, and when we reached the usual spot, the engine stopped, as soldiers might, when their duty was completed. As I climbed out of the bus, a new but familiar day acknowledged my presence.

I have undertaken this obligation and yet I knew from the start that contemplation would take me nowhere. The sun continues to rise each morning, car accidents will be ceaseless interruptions, and the predator will catch the prey. I have listened and watched attentively, trying to notice every detail in my surroundings; exploring on my own, wondering what discoveries await me. Now, I must return to my more productive endeavors, for a week is too good to lose, and I shall not want to lose it over again. Time is scarce, and one can only spend so much of it on any one thing. I have paid the tax and can forget again until next year.

In intermediate art last year, the running joke was that artists are people who take credit for their mistakes. So it is with almost any profession, but some are less candid than others. When dishonest people hold power, the presence is just as felt. A leech can drink its share of blood, but before resting must it protest.